|Teamwork wins out|
By Anthony Kuipers
History has a way of repeating itself for the Idaho men's basketball program.
The 2010-11 team entered the season picked to finish eighth in the Western Athletic Conference preseason polls. They exceeded outside expectations by ending the year tied for third in the WAC and earning an invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
It marked the second time in three years under head coach Don Verlin that the Vandals were invited to the CIT after being picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. The 2008-09 team, Verlin's first at Idaho, was a unanimous preseason pick for last place in the WAC. They, too, finished third in the conference before moving on to postseason play.
This year's team started the season with no clear-cut leaders, with very little experience and with low expectations from the outside world. The Vandals developed into a balanced, cohesive unit. The result was 18 victories - the team's most since 1994. With six combined years of NCAA Division I playing experience, Idaho was the nation's fourth-least-experienced team, and they were the least experienced team in the nation to qualify for postseason play.
Verlin, who oversaw both CIT appearances and is now 50-46 in three seasons at Idaho, said that the key to Idaho's success in his third year came from two simple characteristics: work ethic and chemistry.
"I thought this basketball team overachieved mainly because we had no selfish guys," Verlin said. "They just came to work every day, didn't care about who got the credit, who scored the points. They cared about working hard and trying to be the best they could be."
The results also included a 5-1 start in conference play and a win against No 17/21 ranked Utah State at home that ended the Aggies' WAC-record 25-game conference win streak. Idaho won eight road games this season, the most since 1990, including a 69-65 victory at Oregon.
There were individual achievements along the way. Ledbetter broke Idaho's single-season record for 3-pointers made with 99 and tied the school record for consecutive free throws made with 26. He led the team in scoring and earned second-team all-WAC honors.
Ledbetter's shooting accuracy helped Idaho to lead the WAC in 3-point field goal percentage this season. The Vandals shot just under 39 percent from long distance and hit 46 percent of their total attempts from the field.
Sophomore center Kyle Barone earned honorable mention all-WAC honors. Barone led the conference with a .611 field goal percentage and broke the WAC career record for conference-only field goal percentage (.631).
Idaho also showed their defensive toughness by holding 20 of their 32 opponents below scoring average. The team ranked second in the conference in points allowed and third in field goal percentage defense, steals and rebounding defense.
Verlin said defensive success was crucial for Idaho during conference play.
"It's what you have to do to play at the top of this league," Verlin said. "You have to be one of the best defensive teams and we were one of those all year long. I thought our assistant coaches did a great job with their game plans and game prep and scouting reports. I thought our players did a great job of learning them and executing the game plans and that's how you become good defensively in this league."
Verlin said it is not the wins he is most proud of when reflecting back on the season, but the effort he saw from the players.
"What I've been most happy about is our ability to learn to play hard every day because you have to do that and it has to be a standard in your program and this year more than any other year our team came out and played extremely hard every day all year long," Verlin said.
Idaho will lose three of its starters in Ledbetter, Henderson and Wiley next season, but several important pieces are returning. Along with Barone, the team's second leading scorer, junior forward Luiz Toledo will patrol the low post. Toledo started all but two games and averaged nine points while shooting 53 percent from the field. Redshirt freshman Joe Kammerer and junior Djim Bandoumel will also figure strongly into the low post rotation next season.
There will be plenty of talent in the backcourt as well. Junior point guard Deremy Geiger, who started every game this season, dished out 84 assists and scored just under 9 points a game. Geiger was also the MVP of the Basketball Traveler's Classic Tournament in December. Junior guard Landon Tatum played in every game and led the WAC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.20). He ranked 50th in the NCAA in that category. True freshman guard Stephen Madison also played in every game and shot 37 percent from the three point line.
Idaho signed two junior college players in 6-8 forward Wendell Faines and 6-4 guard Anthony Jones. Joining them will be Xavier Bazile, a 6-4 guard from Tahoma High School in Washington. They'll also return the services of freshman Matt Borton, who redshirted this season.
Verlin said he is optimistic about the potential of next year's team.
"I'm real excited about the youth in our program, but I'm also real excited about the depth in our program with the guys that we've got coming in and if we do the things that we need to do in the spring and in the summer to get ourselves better," Verlin said. "I think we can have another good year."