Idaho's WAC home opener is this evening (5:05, Cowan Spectrum), and it doesn't get much tougher for the Vandals. Awaiting them in gray, snowy Moscow is league-leading Louisiana Tech.
Read on for more about the game and thoughts from UI coach Don Verlin.
First, here's an extended four corners brief -- part of which ran in Thursday's paper.
Record: 8-5 overall, 1-1 Western Athletic Conference
Coming up: Saturday vs. Lousiana Tech, 5:05 p.m.; Monday vs. New Mexico State, 7:05 p.m.
Outlook: It’s been a fairly turbulent first six weeks of the season for the Vandals – they’ve yet to string together more than three straights wins – but coach Don Verlin is pleased with the team’s progress. UI earned a split on the longest road trip of the WAC season, winning at Hawaii and losing at San Jose State, and has shown improvement on defense and in limiting turnovers. “I was really happy with the way we competed on the road,” Verlin said. “I really think this team is getting better, especially at doing some of the things you have to do on the road to win.” The Vandals enter a make-or-break stretch on Saturday, when league-leading Louisiana Tech comes to Cowan Spectrum. The Bulldogs (14-2, 2-0) have easily the best overall record among WAC teams and perhaps the best inside-outside combo with 6-foot-11 Magnum Rolle (13.3 points per game) and wing Kyle Gibson (20.9 points per game). The Vandals have had trouble guarding explosive perimeter players this year, and Gibson torched UI last season, scoring at least 21 points in each of three matchups.
La Tech's 14-2 start is pretty impressive considering the Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth and sixth by the coaches and media, respectively, before the season. Now they're projected as a 13th seed for the NCAA tournament in ESPN's latest bracket guess.
Here's what Verlin had to say about La Tech: "Very good in the paint. Magnum Rolle, a 6-11 transfer from LSU, projected as one of the top big men in the country. ... They have arguably one of the top wings in the conference in Kyle Gibson, and we’ve had a hard time with Kyle Gibson. I think he’s averaged about 28 points a game in the three games they played us last year."
Gibson's average is actually 23 points during the stretch Verlin mentioned, but you get the point -- he will be tough to contain. That's especially true since Idaho has really struggled defending the best perimeter/wing scorers it's faced this season -- from Klay Thompson to Cal State Northridge's Kenny Daniels to Eastern Oregon's Dan Stafford.
Verlin was asked if UI matches up better with La Tech since it has more size (with Kyle Barone and Luiz Toledo), and the coach wasn't so sure. "We’ve got a little more size with Toledo and with Steff (Johnson) at the guard spot. But it’s still a tough matchup for us. I think they’re very good, especially at the wing with (Jamal) Guyton and Gibson."
Later, Verlin added, "They pose matchup problems for us. No question."
Idaho is currently 115th in the RPI; La Tech is 83rd. Those numbers come from collegerpi.com.
In the blurb above, I hinted at Idaho's tough stretch. Here's what they have coming up after LTU -- New Mexico State on Monday at home, then at Nevada next Saturday, followed by Utah State, Boise State and Fresno State at home. That will take the Vandals almost through January -- and it doesn't get much easier after that with Seattle U and a trip to Utah State coming up.
Obviously, the next few weeks are going to be very telling. In the shorter term, though, Verlin said fans should expect some intriguing hoops this weekend. "It’s a great weekend if you like college basketball. If you want to see good college basketball, you’re going to see good WAC college basketball this Saturday and Monday in the Cowan Spectrum."
Lastly, here's how LTU and Idaho stack up in the WAC:
- Scoring offense: LT is second (80.3 ppg); Idaho is sixth (73.5 ppg)
- Scoring defense: LT is fourth (70.4 ppg); Idaho is third (69.5)
- Field-goal percentage: LT is third (.475); Idaho is second (.479)
- FG percentage defense: LT is fourth (.423); Idaho is third (.416)
- Rebounding margin: LT is third (+5.4); Idaho is sixth (+2.9).