When two universities are located just eight miles away from each other, their basketball teams tend to play each other often. That is the case for the Washington State Cougars and Idaho Vandals, who have the longest continuously running series west of the Mississippi River. At one point in this millennium, WSU held a series-long 12-game winning streak. During the Ernie Kent era, Idaho held a three games to two advantage.
That means this rivalry has been a little more of a rivalry as of late—and the last time the two played in Moscow, the Vandals blew out the Cougs. That season, Idaho was quite a bit better than than it is now, and WSU was probably quite a bit worse than it is now.
Here’s out to follow tonight’s matchup courtesy of WSU basketball’s Twitter account (you can get it on Idaho’s Pluto TV stream.)
Both programs have different coaches from the last time they met. However, Idaho’s head coach Zac Claus holds the interim title after Don Verlin was fired in July. There’s no indication that Claus will have to take time off this December to help out the family business during its busy season.
Let’s look at the important players and trends for Idaho in the Battle of the Palouse.
The Vandals have been hit hard by injuries this season, fielding less than 10 players for recent games. The injuries have been to key players as well—including leading scorer Trevon Allen. In Allen’s absence, BJ Simmons stepped up, but he has also joined the injury list.
Allen has been day-to-day, so he might play against the Cougs. If he does, most of his shots are jumpers. He shoots a lot of 3s, but prefers the mid-range. He hasn’t assisted on as many shots as he did last season, it’s possible he hasn’t been the same level of playmaker due to injury.
On the inside, 6’4 graduate transfer Quinton Forrest seems to play well above his height. He’s been the team’s best rebounder this season, and takes nearly all of his shots inside the arc, with about two-thirds coming at the rim. He hasn’t shot well, but has drawn fouls at a decent rate.
Idaho’s biggest big is 6’8 Scott Blakney. The junior is a good finisher, shooting 60 percent on 2s, but struggles with turnovers. He has not been a good defensive rebounder, but does grab a decent share of his own team’s misses.
Keyshaad Dixon and Chance Garvin see expanded roles when Allen is out. Dixon has struggled from the field and shoots primarily jumpers. Garvin has hit a decent percentage of shots this season, and will mix in a few more takes at the rim with his outside attempts. He’ll also be a bit more of a playmaker than Dixon.
Idaho’s rotation has been hampered heavily by injuries, and they likely won’t suit up anything close to a full roster. That’s something on which WSU could capitalize.
The Vandals don’t shoot many 3s—just 30 percent of attempts, well below the national average of 37.5 percent. That’s probably all well and good, because Idaho is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country at 26 percent from deep. I’d expect WSU to be able to limit the outside, as the Cougs don’t allow many 3s and allow a below-average percentage on those shots.
Idaho isn’t particularly good at anything offensively. The Vandals are about average in turning the ball over, about average shooting inside, and slightly below average in getting to the free throw line. Despite their lack of height (332nd in average height), they do avoid getting their shot blocked pretty well. That’s something.
WSU should dominate the defensive glass. There will probably be many opportunities for rebounds.
There hasn’t been much fight inside from Idaho—allowing nearly 53 percent on 2s. However, that hasn’t stopped opponents from launching 3s on almost 45 percent of attempts. Opponents have shot just below average on those 3s.
WSU has not shot well from deep this season, so it should probably avoid being lulled into hoisting often from deep. The Cougs will have a clear height advantage, and they should look to exploit a soft Idaho interior.
Turnovers shouldn’t be an issue for Wazzu. The Vandals don’t force many and the Cougs don’t give many up. I wouldn’t expect many free throws either—Idaho’s defense doesn’t allow them and the Cougs aren’t great at getting to the line.
The lack of free throws combined with giving up 60 percent on shots at the rim tell me that Idaho doesn’t challenge much when offensive players get inside. Again, attack the middle Cougs. At least do so to build a big advantage, then work on whatever you want.
The Bottom Line
Idaho isn’t good—336th in KenPom’s ranking. The Vandals are 320th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 334th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They are shorthanded, and they are also short.
The Cougs aren’t great themselves—154th in KenPom—and that combined with it being at the Cowan Spectrum is why they are only predicted to win 78 percent of the time with an average score of 83-75.
WSU should win. It should be comfortable. But it’s a rivalry, right? Anything can happen, they say.