The Washington State Cougars and Idaho Vandals will extend the longest continuous basketball rivalry west of the Mississippi River when they face off in Pullman on Wednesday night (6 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The game was in doubt after WSU postponed its previous game against Colorado due to COVID-19 concerns. Still, the rivalry persists.
It’s unclear which, if any, players will be out because of COVID-19 precautions. What is clear is that this should be a pretty big mismatch. The Vandals struggled to an 8-24 record last season in their first year under head coach Zac Claus, and things certainly haven’t improved in Moscow.
Idaho comes into this game with an 0-2 record, both losses coming at the hands of Big Sky foe Sacramento State. The Big Sky has adopted a unique scheduling philosophy this season where each team travels to play two consecutive games against the same opponent. Additionally, tonight’s meeting with WSU is actually just one of three non-conference games currently on the schedule for the Vandals.
Let’s take a look at the major trends and players that will impact the Battle of the Palouse.
When Idaho has the ball...
There are many returning Vandals looking for a bigger role in 2020-2021 following the departure of Travon Allen. Last season, Allen took nearly 38 percent of Idaho’s shots when he was on the floor (which was over 79 percent of minutes). He has now graduated, and that means former role players are now looking to become go-to-guys.
Through two games, that go-to-guy has most often been Scott Blakney. The 6’8 center took 20 shots in 50 minutes against Sacramento State. He does his work almost entirely inside the arc, as he hasn’t taken a three-point shot in roughly two years. He takes about 70 percent of his shots at the rim, so expect to see him frequently posted inside.
Another player taking a significantly increased role is sophomore wing Gabe Quinnett. While Blakney ventures inside most often, Quinnett is almost entire a jump shooter, having taken only four percent of his shots at the rim last year (and so far the same this season). He is a good outside shooter, and the attention that brings allows him to rack up assists at a solid rate.
Junior college transfer DeAndre Robinson has yet to start, but he played starter minutes against Sacramento State. He appears to be the most impactful newcomer, shooting well from deep in his first two games and also chasing down a very high number of defensive rebounds for a guard.
Overall, Idaho has struggled mightily on offense. Sacramento State features a roughly average Division I defense, but held Idaho to less than 0.85 points per possession (national average has been 0.99 so far this year). The Vandals turned the ball over at a high rate, continuing a trend from last season. They also didn’t do much rebounding on the offensive end, and shot poorly inside the arc.
The one bright spot? Some good 3-point shooting. However, they didn’t shoot many of those, and it’s likely WSU isn’t going to let them get many 3-point shots up.
Washington State has a significantly better defense than Sacramento State, so this should be a dominant defensive performance, maybe to the tune of a less than 0.80 points per possession. The Cougs should clean up on the glass, and likely will force a high number of turnovers. Idaho’s only chance will be getting extremely hot from deep.
When WSU has the ball...
Last season Idaho was very poor at defending the inside, allowing more than 53 percent on 2s, including almost 63 percent at the rim (287th nationally). Not much changed against Sacramento State. The two best shot blockers on the team, Babacar Thiombane and Tanner Christensen both saw bench minutes against Sacramento State, but they may get more run against WSU’s front line.
Idaho isn’t likely to force many turnovers, so WSU should be able to take care of the ball if it can avoid silly mistakes. Where the Vandals were surprisingly good last year was on the defensive glass, posting a well above average defensive rebounding rate. That didn’t work out against Sacramento State, but it’s likely there is some level of specific strategic commitment to securing opponent misses.
The Vandals have a poor defense overall, so this really could be a get-right game for the Cougar offense. There should be more open shots both inside and out, and likely lower turnover numbers.
The Bottom Line
Idaho just isn’t very good. They will be a Big Sky bottom feeder, and they are in a period of adjustment after losing major contributors from last season’s team (which was also a Big Sky bottom feeder). KenPom predicts a WSU win in 94 percent of simulations, with an average score of 77-60.
The Vandals will probably struggle to score against WSU’s defense. Every other Washington State opponent has so far, and Idaho’s offense is the worst that the Cougs have faced. How big of a blowout this becomes is primarily dependent on whether Wazzu can hit shots. If they can knock down open look and take care of the basketball, they should at the very least hit north of 1.0 points per possession for the first time this season.
If this is close throughout like the first three games? Well, that might be cause for concern in Pullman.