Washington State "hits the road" on Wednesday to take on their Palouse rivals, the Idaho Vandals for the 107th consecutive year. The Cougars are coming off their best performance of the season, a 75-49 blowout of the Eastern Washington Eagles.
The Vandals stand at 4-3 on the season, with two of their officials wins coming against non-Division I teams. Interestingly enough, their game against Lewis and Clark State actually counted towards their record, as opposed to the Cougars who merely played an "exhibition" game against LCSC. UI's other wins came against Montana State and in their last outing, a 94-74 beating of UC Davis. Idaho also played Eastern Washington recently, falling 73-66 at home.
Under Don Verlin the Vandals have made improvements. They've been in the top half of college basketball each of his four seasons. Prior to Verlin, they spent several seasons among the worst teams in nation. In recent years, they've been able to compete in the WAC and tied for third in 2011.
Idaho lost their two starting guards from that team, the sharpshooting/balding Jeff Ledbetter and Shawn Henderson. This year they will probably take a small step back in competitiveness. Washington State has won the last eight meetings in the series, including a 37-36 barn-burner in 2005 that was won on a last second dunk by Jeff Varem. As my Idaho-alum friend who was a student at the time put it "We had you guys, but then this giant beast of a man dunked over everyone and I was pissed."
Offense and Defense previews after the jump.
The Vandals have been an excellent shooting team so far this season. They have posted a 54.4 eFG% including knocking down 43.9% of their three-point attempts. They've also been above-average inside the arc, htting 48.8% of twos. Even with their hot shooting from the outside, they still don't attempt a bunch of threes, as they are in the middle of the pack nationally in terms of 3PA/FGA.
The two shooters to watch for are Deremy Geiger and Stephen Madison. Geiger is the more prolific shooter, having taken 46 attempts already this season and knocking down 20 of them (43.5%). Madison shoots less, but is very accurate, hitting 45.8%. Little used reserve Connor Hill hasn't played much, but when he does he comes in hoisting threes. He has only played 13.6% of the teams minutes, but has already shot 19 threes, making 9 of them (his shot% is a ridiculous 45.5). If he makes it into the lineup, look for him to be taking shots. Outside of those guys, there are not any other Vandals that take very many three-pointers. WSU needs to focus on them to lock down the outside.
Idaho has two capable big men on the inside. 6-10 junior Kyle Barone will see the most touches down-low and he has hit on 61.8% of his twos so far this season. Djim Bandoumel has also done well with his limited opportunities, hitting on 66.7% of his shots. No other player over 6-5 has played a significant portion (more than 40%) of the minutes.
What's interesting about Idaho is that Verlin seems to be playing with the lineup a lot to figure out his bench rotation. Barone, Madison, Geiger, and London Tatum all have played more than 68% of the minutes. Bandoumel and freshman Matt Borton play around 40% and after that there are six guys that have played between 12 and 26%. When these reserves come in, expect them to be involved. Idaho's top four guys in possessions used while on the floor all play less than significant minutes.
U of I started the season turning the ball over at a very high rate, but has slowed that trend significantly over their last two games; On the season, they average a turnover on 20.5% of their possessions, which is above average. Their last three games they've posted excellent turnover rates of 18.5, 16.2, and 16.1.
Barone and Madison turn the ball over the most among the key players, The Vandal's two 5-11 guards, Geiger and Tatum, have done a fine job taking care of the basketball and Geiger is ranked 269th nationally in turnover rate. Much of the early season problems could have come from increased minutes given to reserves, as most of them have given the ball away freqently. As their minutes are dwindling, it seems the giveaways are going the same direction.
Idaho has been a solid offensive rebounding team overall, but much of that success came against two of the lesser teams on their schedule, Concordia and UC Davis. Outside of those two games, they've been at-or-below average. None of UI's regulars excel at offensive rebounding and it may just not be a point of emphasis in Verlin's system.
Like WSU, the Vandals have been excellent at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, and that has been more true against the better teams that they've played. On the season they have a free throw rate of 50.0, so they take one free throw for every two shots they take. That makes them 27th best nationally. They have struggled a bit once reaching the line, shooting 63.7% as a team.
Baron and Tatum are the most adept at drawing fouls, with 81.8 and 72.7 free throw rates respectively. Geiger will also take frequent trips to the line with a 48.4 FTR. The team as a whole seems to be good at getting to the free throw line, so WSU will have to be careful to avoid silly fouls.
Overall, there will be two guys to pay very close attention to on the outside in Geiger and Madison. WSU's perimeter defense was vastly improved against EWU and they have another challenge tonight. Stopping penetration by Tatum will also be key, as he is very effective at either dishing off or drawing a foul once he gets to the lane.
Defense has not been the Vandals' strong suit this season and much of the blame rests on their inability to defend the three. Opponents are shooting 40.2% from beyond the arc and are taking a lot of attempts. 38.9% of their FGA have come from three, only 42 teams have seen opponents shoot more.
They do make up for some of that with their solid interior defense. They are limiting teams to only slightly better on twos than threes. Their 15.9 block percentage is a big part of that. Barone and Bandoumel have done a fine job protecting the paint so far this season.
Idaho is not going to force a lot of turnovers or get many steals. Opponents have a 17.7 TO rate, 306th nationally. Only one team has turned the ball over an above average amount, and that was UC Davis. However, like UC Davis, the Cougars turn the ball over a lot themselves. Against a team like Idaho that doesn't go for many steals, usually it is teams that are left to do their own shooting of their feet. Reggie Moore needs to limit his mistakes in this one.
The Vandals have not been a good defensive rebounding team. They are allowing opponents to grab 34.7% of their own misses. Barone has been very effective, grabbing 20.3% of opportunities, but he has not had much help from the other key players. Borton does work off the bench in defensive rebounding, but outside of those two this seems like an area where UI's smaller size hurts them. Marcus Capers may be able to use his size to grab some extra opportunities for the Cougs.
Free throw rate is an area where Idaho is almost as good defensively as they are offensively. They are holding teams to 31.3 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, which is well below the national average of 37.2. This does not bode well for WSU, who has used free throws to gain an advantage many times throughout their schedule.
WSU's offensive strengths match-up with Idaho's strengths here and something has to give. Either the Cougs will have to rely more on the outside, or use their size advantage at the guard position to get better looks inside the arc. Brock Motum and Charlie Enquist will not be able to get easy points simply because they are taller, as Barone and Bandoumel will provide a challenge.
Kenpom predicts this game to be tight, with WSU barely favored to win. Idaho seems to play a lot better against the Cougs when they are at home and provides some challenges on both ends of the floor. Will WSU look like the team that played against EWU on Saturday and bring the defensive intensity again? That is a huge question headed into this match-up.