Fresh off their first loss of the season, the Washington State Cougars (6-1) will look to bounce back as they travel across the border to take on the Idaho Vandals (5-2) in the 112th meeting of what the schools like to remind you is the oldest-running rivalry west of the Mississippi River.
Tip off is scheduled for 7 p.m., and the game will be carried in Pullman and Spokane by SWX. For the rest of us, there appears to be an online stream that is free, which you can find here.
As WSU’s basketball strength has faded under a pair of coaches and Idaho’s has grown under Don Verlin, this has become a tricky game for the Cougars. Ernie Kent’s tenure started with a pair of losses to the Vandals before the Cougs secured a 13-point victory at home last season.
This season figures to be as tricky as ever; the Vandals are currently three-point favorites in Vegas, and also are ranked higher than the Cougs by kenpom.com — 148th to 171st, leading to a prediction of Idaho winning two out of three times by a margin of 75-70.
This is likely to be a clash of styles similar to the one that led to WSU’s first loss, over the weekend, to UC Davis: The Aggies gave the Cougar offense a lot of trouble in the first half before Robert Franks took over in the final 20 minutes, and WSU also struggled with defending in the halfcourt throughout the entire game. The Cougars are going to have to show that they’ve learned from that experience, because just like UC Davis, the Vandals play stingy defense by denying threes, they want to slow the game down, and above all, they are well coached.
The Vandals sport an exceptional shooting defense that limits teams to 46.5 effective field goal percentage — well below WSU’s season mark of 56.2. They do it by allowing very few three-point attempts, and the ones their opponents do take, they have shot poorly. WSU, of course, wants to shoot lots of threes and has shot them well this season. That was a problem on Saturday against the Aggies — when WSU didn’t get much from beyond arc from guys not named Franks and Flynn — but interestingly, it wasn’t a problem in defeating Saint Mary’s, which does a lot of the same things.
Perhaps therein lies the offensive key: When they were stymied at the three-point line by the Gaels, WSU worked hard to get into the lane. On Saturday, they seemed to lack the commitment needed to get penetration, perhaps because it was a classic letdown game. (The Cougs also turned the ball over more than usual against the Aggies. That will have to improve against an Idaho team that doesn’t take the ball away much.)
Defensively, the Cougs will have one major key: Keep Idaho off the free throw line. The Vandals are terrible at finishing around the basket, but they’re very good at drawing fouls — so much so, that they have one of the higher ratios in the country of free throw attempts to field goal attempts, and they score nearly one quarter of their points from there, which is a really high amount. WSU had been excellent in that regard ... until Saturday.
The good news is that beyond the Cougs being potentially pissed off about their first loss of the season, this isn’t a game that usually is lacking for emotional investment: These players know each other, they see each other, they play pickup ball with each other during the offseason.
It’ll probably be close, and it should be fun.