In the town of Moscow, Idaho, college hoops is a hotter subject than the price of peas and lentils, which is saying something, because Moscow calls itself the pea and lentil capital of the world. Yes, the University of Idaho—bordered by Canada on the north, the state of Washington on the west and the Pac-10 psychologically on all sides—has 'em buzzing at the coffee klatches around town where farmers and businessmen gather each morning to talk about the Vandals.
After victories last Friday and Saturday over Big Sky Conference rivals Idaho State (73-62) and Weber State (59-44), the Vandals were 15-0, one of only four undefeated major college teams. SI ranks them No. 11, and they'll probably move up in both wire-service polls, which last week placed them 14th (UPI) and 11th (AP). Not bad for a school whose principal basketball legacy until this year was the Gus Johnson Memorial Jumping Nail at the Corner Club in downtown Moscow.
"I don't mean to overstate this," says Coach Don Monson, "but I guess this is as big a thing athletically as has ever happened to the school."
Monson, a four-year substitute at Idaho during the '50s ("I never started one damn game here," he says), came back to Moscow in 1978 following a three-year 16-62 downer at Idaho that ended in the dismissal of Coach Jim Jarvis after the 1977-78 season. Monson brought with him a big stick and a 2-3 matchup zone culled from two years as an assistant to Jud Heathcote at Michigan State. "I have to admit he scared me a little bit at first," says his point guard, Kenny Owens. But not half as much as the Vandals scared the rest of the conference last year, when Monson coached them to a 25-3 record in the regular season. The only thing in Vandal history that comes close to that was the 1962-63 team that went 20-6 behind Gus Johnson, who played only one season at Idaho before jumping to the NBA.
Junior Guard Brian Kellerman, out of Columbia High in Richland, Wash., is typical of Monson's current starting five in that he wasn't highly recruited outside of Moscow. But Monson convinced him he could help put Moscow on something besides the commodities map. An all-around player who has everything but quickness, Kellerman is the part that fits anywhere in the Idaho picture. Hampered by back and knee injuries, Kellerman was off his shooting game against both Idaho State and Weber, but Idaho still won easily, a sign that the team had matured as compared with last season, when it depended heavily on Kellerman, the conference's most valuable player as a sophomore.
Owens, who's from New York City, wasn't thinking about Idaho when he decided to look west for a junior college to improve his grades and chose Treasure Valley JC in Ontario, Ore. After two years there he came to play for Monson. "Some of my friends back in the city just couldn't figure out where I was going," said Owens.
Center Kelvin Smith liked Virginia (and Ralph Sampson), but when he found himself with only two offers after two years at Taft (Calif.) Junior College, Idaho's looked the better.
Forward Phil Hopson grew up in Portland and wanted to go to either Oregon State or Cal. Neither wanted him. Swingman Gordon Herbert grew up in Penticton, British Columbia—he may be the only basketball player in America whose favorite athlete is Guy Lafleur—an area that got its principal basketball exposure from the Pac-10 TV game of the week. Herbert grew up rooting for the University of Washington and wanted to go there, but the Huskies didn't want him.
This season Herbert and his teammates have shown Washington and three other Pac-10 schools what they were missing. The Vandals had a 21.5-point average margin of victory over Washington, Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon. In 1979 Oregon State had beaten Idaho 100-59; Idaho's victory over State in the Far West Classic was by a 71-49 score, a 63-point turnaround. All around the university campus and in Moscow hang signs and banners reading IDAHO 4, PAC-10 0.
"I don't know about those banners, because it looks like we're gloating," says Monson worriedly. Which is exactly what they are doing. Pullman, Wash., the home of Washington State, is just eight miles west of Moscow, and any true Muscovite is tired of the Pac-10's greater prestige and power and what is viewed as its irritatingly condescending attitude toward Idaho and the Big Sky conference. And Monson is tired of its edge in recruiting. "The best kids are drawn by the bright lights," says Monson, "and we're not the bright lights."
Actually, to the student population of Washington State, Moscow is the bright lights, mainly because Idaho's legal drinking age is 19, and Washington's is 21. But that's as far as it goes. Loyal Idaho fans wouldn't dream of attending a Washington State game.
"Put it this way," says Butch Shaffer, a pea and lentil trader, "if Washington State was playing against Russia, I'm not sure who I'd root for."
As impressive as the Vandals have been on the road, they've been even tougher in the home-campus Kibbie Dome. Idaho State and Weber State were their 27th and 28th straight victims over a two-year period. The Idaho campus and the town it dominates are a curious mixture of the old and the new. The conservative white citizenry is entranced by this basketball team, which includes six blacks. The Corner Club, a study in decrepitude, is shared by local pensioners, who play pinochle and drink 16-ounce beers (pounders) by day, and the college crowd that streams in to play Pac-Man and drink pounders by night. Gil Brandt, vice-president of player development for the Dallas Cowboys, was having a beer at the Corner Club one day nine years ago during a recruiting visit and was startled when a customer rode right up to the bar on his horse and ordered a beer.
But the CC is best known for Johnson's nail. In 1963, jumping from a flat-footed stance, the 6'6" Johnson touched a spot on a beam about 12 feet high, and the spot was marked with a nail. Anyone who can duplicate Johnson's feat can drink for free, but since Johnson did it no one has come close.
There are no Gus Johnsons on the current Idaho squad, and that may be an asset. It is one of the most balanced teams in the U.S., with the five starters each averaging in double figures. Everyone can shoot—the lowest percentage on the starting five (.493) belongs to the slumping Kellerman—and everyone is unselfish. Against Idaho State, for example, Smith and Owens took 10 shots each, and Kellerman, Herbert and Hop-son took seven apiece.
Rebounding is another matter. The Vandals are last in the Big Sky in that department, at first glance an unlikely statistical fact for such a dominating league leader. One reason is that Idaho is one of the least physically imposing Top 20 teams in recent history. Herbert, Hop-son and Smith are all 6'6", and only Herbert, who looks skinny, weighs more than 200 pounds. Kellerman is 6'5", 190. Owens is 6 feet, 180.
Other reasons are that Idaho shoots so well it gets few offensive boards and that on defense Monson's matchup zone leaves the Vandals in poor rebounding position, particularly on the weak side. On Friday night a missed Idaho State shot actually bounced on the floor once and Idaho never got to it. And the defense has demonstrated from time to time that it can be vulnerable inside. Nine of Idaho State's 11 first-half field goals were short jumpers inside, layups or follow shots before Monson switched to more basic zone play. But Idaho does a lot of things well. It can run the break or a good half-court offense, and it takes high-percentage shots. Its zone usually creates more problems for the opposition than it does for the Vandals, rebounding notwithstanding.
All in all, as they might say in Moscow, you ain't seen nothin' yet.