Washington State men’s basketball heads across state lines to take on the Idaho Vandals in newly-opened ICCU Arena on Thursday night (6 pm, ESPN+). The Cougs look to move to 4-0 in the only true road game of their non-conference schedule, while Idaho is looking for its first win over Division I competition.
The atmosphere figures to be a lively one, with many WSU fans in town for the Cougar football game on Friday making the drive over to Moscow. Lower bowl seating in the 4200-seat facility appears to be sold out, with only upper section general admission tickets remaining.
What sort of game will those fans see? Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Battle of the Palouse, 277th edition.
When Idaho has the ball...
The Vandals look very different from the team that took WSU to the wire last season. Nine players logged minutes in Idaho’s first three game. Six of those players are new transfers, and one is a freshman. The top two players in terms of usage are both new to the Vandals—senior guard Mikey Dixon moved to Moscow from Grand Canyon University, while Trevante Anderson played sparingly at San Francisco.
Dixon was primarily a jump-shooter at Grand Canyon, but he has been much more aggressive in going to the rim with Idaho. That has led to a high free throw rate—he takes a free throw for every two shots he puts up. So far he has been unable to finish inside the arc as well as he has in the past, posting a lower field goal percentage at the rim and making just 10% of his 2-point jumpers. He does seem willing to distribute more than he did at his last stop, as his assist rate has more than doubled.
Anderson—a Tacoma native who played his high school ball in Seattle at Rainier Beach—has focused on getting to the rim even more often than Dixon. He takes over half of his shots near the bucket, and he has hit 56% of those attempts. If he doesn’t venture outside, it won’t be for a 2-point jumper—he has taken three times as many 3-pointers and midrange shots. Anderson is also adept at drawing contact, so WSU’s bigs should be careful to avoid fouling when going for blocked shots.
Idaho often groups the 6’2 Dixon and 6’1 Anderson with two of 6’4 Gabe Quinnett, 6’3 Nolan Bertain, and 6’4 Rashad Smith. Philip Pepple Jr. plays most of the minutes at center, standing at just 6’7 but a stout 240. At 6’0, Yusef Salih backs up the two-guard and primarily floats outside. WSU will have a decided height advantage in the frontcourt, and possibly in the guard positions depending on lineup combinations.
Quinnett is the key Idaho holdover as a third-year sophomore primarily filling the small forward role. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does he’s dangerous from the 3-point line—hitting 44% last season on 82 attempts.
At the rotating small forward/stretch four position, Bertain has yet to take anything other than a 3-pointer through three games, and that tracks with his two seasons at Texas A&M Corpus Christi when two-thirds of his shots cam from deep. He can shoot—hitting 42% in 2020-2021. Smith also appears to prefer long-range shots, as 43% of his field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc—he’s hit them well so far.
Pepple garners the inenviable task of dealing with WSU’s large frontline. He takes the vast majority of his shots in the paint, and has hit 85% of his attempts at the rim so far. He’s not a primary offensive threat, so expect him to feed off dribble drives by Idaho’s guards and the offensive glass.
Overall, Idaho’s major weapon is the 3-point shot. The Vandals have shot 46% on 3s this season, and 44% of their field goal attempts come from deep. They struggle mightily inside the arc, making just 35% of their 2s so far and grabbing just 18% of their own misses.
When WSU has the ball...
Idaho has allowed more than 1.05 points per possession in each of its three games, including more than 1.1 to Division III George Fox. The Vandals don’t allow many 3-point attempts, which is a sound strategy, but it might be more of a byproduct of their small lineup.
While Idaho’s 3-point defense has been stingy and solid—teams have shot just 28% from 3 against them, opposing offenses have thrived on the inside. The Vandals have allowed teams to shoot 62% on 2-point attempts this year, opponents have shot 44 free throw attempts for every 100 field goal attempts (also called free throw rate), and Idaho has the 242nd-best defensive rebounding rate.
Interestingly, it seems that the Vandals funnel all defensive rebounding duties to either Bertain or Smith—both have very high personal defensive rebounding rates for their relative sizes.
The Vandals do force turnovers on 21% of possessions, but not necessarily through steals. They are near the top in the country in non-steal turnover percentage, which might suggest while they funnel teams off the 3-point line they are also looking to take charges. WSU’s driving guards should be wary of secondary defenders.
The Bottom Line
KenPom ranks Idaho 350th and predicts WSU to win in 97% of simulations with an average score of 80-59. Bart Torvik has Idaho at 347th, and gives them a 6% chance to win with an average score of 78-61 in WSU’s favor.
This isn’t expected to be close, but Idaho does have many high-volume and high-percentage 3-point shooters. If a group of them get hot, they could hang around with WSU. Threes are always the great equalizer. When the Vandals do miss, the Cougs should control the defensive glass. Limiting shot volume can undermine hot shooting.
On the other end, the Cougs should be looking to feed their bigs, or have their bigger guards and small forwards attack the rim. There is little resistance in terms of size in the Idaho interior, so it’s likely WSU will find good looks at close range, draw fouls, or gather offensive rebounds at a high rate.
WSU has a clear size advantage that should allow them to control the inside on both ends. If the Cougs can push Idaho’s shooters off the 3-point line, they should cruise in the Battle of the Palouse.