Tonight at 7 the Vandals play on the road against the WAC’s powerhouse team, Nevada. The Wolf Pack has won 16 straight and is starting to get the attention of national writers like Seth Davis. Idaho has let back-to-back winnable games slip away and is playing perhaps its worst basketball since last January.
There’s no reason to believe UI can upset Nevada. But it’s not as unlikely as you might think. Find out why after the jump.
First, let’s go back to Idaho’s 73-55 loss to Nevada in Moscow a month ago. The Vandals played an atrocious first half – they had 13 turnovers and only 25 points – and it was never competitive after that. Most of Idaho’s turnover issues were the result of Nevada’s tenacious pressure defense, particularly away from the basket by its guards.
The Wolf Pack had 12 steals in the first half alone, and it seemed like most of those came in the first 10 minutes of the game. UI looked intimidated, and by the time it settled down in front of a tiny holiday break crowd of 1,081, the game was essentially decided.
Almost directly after the game, Idaho coach Don Verlin gathered his team to watch the ugly loss on film – and he immediately could be heard chewing out several players for their subpar effort. The Vandals were in a team room in the Kibbie Dome past midnight that night for what Verlin likes to call “prayer meetings.”
They responded with wins in four of their next five games.
All this to say that the Vandals should no doubt be eager to show Nevada they are a more capable team than they looked on Jan. 5. Of course, Nevada is clearly the more talented (and confident) team, and it’s hard to know how far UI’s motivation will go tonight. If you’re curious, UNR is a 10- to 10.5-point favorite.
A few other things about the first game: Nevada was remarkably efficient from the 3-point line. It started 7 of 9 from outside, and Malik Story and Deonte Burton finished a combined 9 of 12 on 3s. Story is the WAC’s top 3-point shooter (47.4 percent) and Nevada is second in the conference – behind UI – as a team in 3-point percentage, so it’s not like last time was a fluke. Still, it’s hard to imagine Nevada shooting 78% from 3 in the first half like the last matchup.
Also, the only Idaho player in double digits was Stephen Madison (13 points on 4 of 10 shooting). Everyone else had an off night or a quiet night, especially Kyle Barone (eight points, four turnovers). Barone is starting to reassert himself again – though it’s hard to tell with the up-and-down junior – and Djim Bandoumel has come on in the last month. Both starting posts will need to be aggressive with the ball and on the boards if Idaho wants to stay close.
The biggest key, though, is trying to make life difficult for Burton, the Wolf Pack’s fantastic sophomore point guard. He had 26 points in the first meeting and he hit the game-winning 3 on Thursday night to beat Utah State. But before the game-winner, he was 2 of 11 from the field with just 10 points. Verlin has to hope he has a similar line for the second straight night.
A couple things to note in conclusion, both of which point to why this might not be a Wolf Pack rout:
- Idaho has won at Nevada two of the past three years and won both matchups last year.
- The Wolf Pack hasn’t been blowing out teams lately. In its last three games, Nevada has won by a combined 11 points. That includes Thursday night’s one-point victory over USU and a two-point win at Louisiana Tech last week – both are mid- or low-tier WAC teams.
Follow me on Twitter (@SR_JoshWright) for updates on Idaho basketball and football.