The Washington State Cougars host the Idaho State Bengals on Sunday, the 11th time the two schools in adjacent states have competed in basketball. WSU has won nine of the previous ten contests, most recently an 83-62 blowout in 2017.
The Bengals have a new head coach in Ryan Looney. He had plenty of success in the Division II and NAIA ranks, but is now tasked with building a program that has finished No. 260 or greater in the KenPom rankings each of the last ten seasons. Just once in that span did Idaho State finish above .500 in Big Sky play.
So far this season, Idaho State lost a grinder to Wyoming, pulled off a road upset over Air Force, and beat up on NAIA opponent Montana Western.
Let’s look the key players and trends that will impact Idaho State’s Dad’s Weekend trip to the Palouse.
Note: All stats are from NCAA Division I games only, unless specified.
Idaho State’s Players
One Bengal that might not leave the floor is Chier Maker. The junior played 90 percent of possible minutes against Air Force and Wyoming. He’s an undersized center at 6’8, 205, but is looking to score all over the floor and can hold is own on the glass. After being an offensive role player last season, he has stepped up to being one of the team’s primary scorers thus far in 2019-2020.
The guy that will likely use the most possessions when he is on the floor is junior college transfer Tarik Cool. He’s a creator for this offense, both for himself and others. He has assisted on 32 percent of his teammates shots during his minutes, while also taking 35 percent of the shots himself.
It was Cool’s 41 points on just 17 field goal attempts that propelled Idaho State past Air Force. In that game, he made all 15 of his free throws. His other two games have been far less impressive offensively, but the potential is clearly there for a major scoring outburst.
While Santa Clara gave WSU troubles with its size, there should be no such issue against Idaho State. Coreyoun Rushin, all 6’6, 200 pounds of him, is the team’s primary power forward, and has spent some time at center. He rebounds well for his size but has been pretty limited offensively so far.
Malik Porter and Jared Stutzman, 6’5 and 6’6 respectively, will both get plenty of time at multiple positions. Porter won’t shoot much, but will crash the offensive glass. Expect Stutzman to launch from deep—he attempted 15 3s combined in the Air Force and Wyoming games. While he hit just three of those, he did knock down 38 percent from downtown last season.
Rounding out the primary guard rotation is Austin Smellie. The sophomore won’t touch the ball much on offense, but does provide nice size with his 6’5 frame on the defensive end. Big guards seem to be a trend on Idaho State, as 6’7 Chidi Udengwu will also get some run. The less tall (6’0) Nico Aguirre will check in at some point and probably take a few shots.
Idaho State’s Offense
Despite ISU’s lack of size in the frontcourt, they have excelled in the interior on offense. The Bengals are grabbing 36.2 percent of offensive rebound chances (51st nationally), and making 54 percent of their 2-pointers (76th nationally).
Idaho State has also been adept at drawing fouls, with the 61st-best free throw rate in the country so far in this early season. Making those free throws has been an issue—the team overall is hitting under 63 percent and that includes Cool’s perfect performance against Air Force.
Turnovers have been too frequent—21 percent of the time, and 3-pointers aren’t falling. The Bengals are hitting on 30.2 percent from beyond the arc. They’ve also preferred the three at a dramatic rate—launching from deep on 51.5 percent of field goal attempts.
I’d expect some improvement on that three-point percentage, if only because Stutzman is the highest volume three-point shooter and he is well below his career averages. That improvement might not come against WSU, as the Cougs emphasize defending the three-point line.
WSU head coach Kyle Smith’s philosophy of chasing shooters away from 3s will certainly be tested against Idaho State, but I’m sure he’ll gladly accept some ill-advised long-range shots.
Idaho State’s Defense
The Bengals have not given up many 3-point attempts themselves—the 7th lowest total by percentage of field goal attempts in the country. It’s always nice to see a team that matches philosophies on the offensive and defensive end. If you emphasize 3-pointers on offense, you should logically be trying to prevent them on defense. Kudos, Coach Looney.
I’m sure those limited threes are part of a defensive philosophy—they lead the country nationally in 3-point percentage against, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Idaho State’s lack of frontcourt size also plays a role.
Teams will always be tempted to go inside against 6’6 power forwards. So far that has been pretty successful, as Wyoming and Air Force combined to shoot 64.7 percent on 2-pointers. That’s a shockingly high number. If a team can knock down two-thirds of their 2-pointers, there is almost no reason to launch a three.
Given that teams are going inside so much, it should come as no surprise that Wyoming and Air Force shot plenty of free throws—more than 56 per 100 field goal attempts.
The lack of size has not prevented Idaho State from rebounding defensively—the Bengals have grabbed almost 80 percent of opponents’ misses. The national average is around 72 percent. Idaho State’s relatively tall guards play a role there.
WSU hasn’t been particularly adept at exploiting the inside just yet—but Idaho State is by far the smallest and worst defense the Cougs will have faced this season. I’d expect C.J. Elleby to attack the basket more, and Jeff Pollard might get a few more looks down low.
Without a real shot-blocking threat, there’s no reason for WSU to stop short and shoot pull-up jumpers on drives against Idaho State. They should be going all the way to the basket for easy shots, or at the very least, drawing a foul.
The Bottom Line
Idaho State isn’t very good—325th by KenPom.com’s estimation. However, they do a couple things that can make them dangerous—shooting 3s and preventing 3s. If they can get hot from deep, they can put a scare in teams on an off night.
The good news for the Cougs is that three-point defense is an emphasis, and so far this season they haven’t fully relied on 3s offensively quite yet (about average in 3PA/FGA). If they defend the 3-point line, Idaho State’s offense will stall.
On top of that, box out the guards and finish inside on offense and it should be an easy day for Washington State.
Game time: 1 pm PT
TV Channel: Pac-12 Network
Stream: Pac-12.com and the Pac-12 Now app (log-in required)