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."