The Idaho and Boise State men's basketball teams have met every year since 1971, and off and on for many years before that. But this time it's different.
Read on for the reasons why, and a preview of the nonconference showdown set for 11 a.m. PST on Saturday.
So why does this Idaho-BSU game feel so different? For one thing, the rivals are in separate leagues now, though that will soon change again. But it's also that this is their first matchup at the Idaho Center in Nampa ... playing midday on New Year's Eve ... with just one game scheduled this season between these intrastate foes. Dating back to the 1970-71 season, they've played at least twice every season -- with the tems bouncing between the Big Sky, the Big West and the WAC (and now the Mountain West, in BSU's case).
Said UI coach Don Verlin, "I don’t know what to expect, to be honest with you." He was speaking of the crowd -- which Verlin hopes is split 50-50 between Vandals and Broncos fans -- but the comment applies in a more general sense too.
The Broncos started 8-1 but have since lost three of their last four, the last coming without leading scorer Anthony Drmic. The Vandals won four of five -- with their only loss a last-second one to Wazzu -- before dropping two gut-wrenching games to Horizon League teams on the road, Wright State and Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Then throw in the neutral-court element, which has happened just once before in this series (in 1992 at the Big Sky Tournament in Missoula). The Vandals, though, have to travel nearly 300 miles -- while Boise State's campus is 20 miles from the Idaho Center.
"I’m thankful that Boise State decided to played the game," Verlin said. "I think it’s a game that should be played. It’s crazy to not to play this game. It’s good for basketball. It’s good for Boise. It’s for Idaho. It’s a good deal."
"They swept us last year," added guard Landon Tatum. "It’s a big game for everybody, including us. ... Boise State always plays with a lot of energy, and they always play tough and physical, especially when it’s a rivalry game against us. ...It’s usually a really energetic and physical game. Usually."
The Vandals have the top field-goal percentage mark in the WAC (.495) and the top field-goal percentage defense. They are also easily the top 3-point shooting team in the league (.423). But they have three clear deficiences, and Verlin is particularly worried about one of them coming into the BSU game.
"The areas that are lacking for us is that we turn the ball over too much, we don’t shoot enough free throws and we give teams too many offensive rebounds," he said. "So we’ve got to cut those things down if we are going to beat a good team on the road."
One area to watch Saturday is offensive rebounding -- the Vandals have struggled to keep teams off the boards; Boise State leads the Mountain West in rebounding margin and is No. 2 is offensive rebounds (12.4 per game).
"It’s like we go to the top of everything to the bottom of those (three areas)," Verlin noted. "And I’m not saying we’ve got to be in the top of all those, but we’ve got to close the gap in some of those areas. And that’s where Boise State is going to give us some problems because they are a very good offensive rebounding team and we’ve got to do a great job on the defensive backboards."