Don Verlin said it nonchalantly, but it came off rather matter-of-factly — Eastern Washington is a rival of the Idaho men's basketball squad.
Is it even a rivalry, though, if you can't beat said rival?
Idaho travels to Cheney on Saturday afternoon for a 12:05 p.m. tip with its 2-0 Big Sky Conference record to face an Eastern Washington squad which downed Idaho three times last year by a combined 14 points, including an overtime win in Cheney and an 8-point elimination of the Vandals in the Big Sky Tournament.
"It’s over now. This is a new Vandal team, that’s what I’ve been telling them all along," Verlin said during a media availability on Tuesday. "Eastern is a rival, they’re a travel partner. But, this is a whole new Vandal team and that’s what I’ll start preaching tomorrow as I start in on our game prep. This team is totally different than last year’s team."
A win on Saturday may be particularly sweet for the Vandals considering the Eagles dropped both games of the road trip to North Dakota and Northern Colorado that Idaho just swept. It would move Idaho three games ahead of EWU in the conference standings, and mark the first 3-0 start to league play for Idaho under Verlin.
"This is going to be one of those games we have to grind out," junior center Ty Egbert said. "This is going to be a hurdle, the three games we played against them went down to the wire. I think it's going to be a revenge game for us, we’re going to come out biting at the bit."
Idaho blew a 17-point lead in a regular season loss in Cheney last season, and led by four at halftime and 73-70 late in the second half in the conference tournament loss to the Eagles.
"Once games are over, you kind of forget about them, you move on to the next game. Win or lose you have to move on, in order to be successful," sophomore guard Chad Sherwood said.
Stellar guard Tyler Harvey, who was snubbed for Big Sky player of the year last season, scored 42 in that last loss. He isn't around anymore, instead foregoing his final season of eligibility to play professional. Still, Verlin sees a guard-oriented team which likes to play fast and shoot a lot of 3s.
"(EWU is) exactly the same. It’s obviously a new version of Eastern without Harvey and Drew. They’re good," Verlin said. "McBroom is a slippery, good point guard, Van Hofe is very good, Venky Jois is Venky Jois and Bliznyuk is back. (EWU coach) Jim (Hayford) is trying to find a fifth guy to fill in there a little bit. I like what I’ve seen from Sir Washington. They play the same way, they’re hard to play, they’re very explosive offensively."
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A Ken Pomeroy look at the game
Are you into advanced statistics? Yes? Then read on.
Ken Pomeroy's pythagorean rating, which basically ranks teams by how they would do against an average Division I team, actually rates Idaho as a better team than Eastern Washington. The Vandals sit at No. 197 in the country, EWU is at No. 224.
But that's still clearly debatable considering how early in the season it is. The Eagles are still immensely talented for the Big Sky level and it was a given that it'd take them time to find themselves without Harvey.
KenPom rates EWU as the No. 81 most efficient offense in the country, with Felix Van Hofe and Austin McBroom absolutely tearing it up shooting from deep. It'll be that end of the floor where this game will be thrilling, considering Idaho brings the nation's No. 94 ranked defense in the country to Cheney per Adjusted Defense.
The other end of the floor will also be interesting with Idaho being ranked No. 291 in AdjO and Eastern being rated No. 338 in AdjD.
Keys to the game? For Idaho, it will be continuing to dominate the glass. Idaho ranks No. 91 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 12 in the country in opponent OR%. The Eagles are No. 33 in the country in effective field goal percentage, which adjusts more credit for 3-point shooting, at 54.6 percent. Stops will be a premium for the Vandals.
As for Idaho, finding consistency from all three guards on the floor will be important. Chad Sherwood stepped up and hit nine 3-pointers in the two games to offset a struggling Victor Sanders, who turned it over 11 times on the road trip while facing added pressure from opposing defenses.
Idaho has five of the Big Sky's top 11 culprits in turnover rate, led by Chris Sarbaugh turning it over at a 34.3 percent clip. Eastern Washington is only seventh in the conference in forcing steals, so now might be a good time for Idaho to learn some ball security.
The analytical prediction of this game is EWU over Idaho 72-69, with Idaho given a 40 percent chance of winning. The system gives a lot of importance to being at home.
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Sophomore post Arkadiy Mkrtychyan is still feeling the effects of surgery he had on his left knee prior to the season. His actions determines what happens with an Idaho possession 25.2 percent of the time when he's on the floor, yet he's only shooting 35 percent on 2-point attempts. Last year the Moscow, Russia native was top 10 in the Big Sky in 2-point shooting percentage at 57.6. The sophomore is also currently No. 9 in the Big Sky in turnover percentage.
Mkrtychyan missed Idaho's first two games and returned during a stretch when Idaho played five games in eight days.
Verlin's thoughts on the situation: "Any time you take that much time off, it’s a timing sport, it’s a conditioning sport, it just takes a while to get back. Looking back on it, he kind of came back right in the middle of a bunch of games and so instead of having practice time, we were getting his practice time and reps in game. He didn’t have the success he was having before, he lost a little confidence. But, I think now he’s starting getting back into shape, he’s getting his bounce back, he’s getting his aggressive attitude back, he’s just going to keep getting better and better and better. More from being laid off, basketball unlike football, it’s just different. The game is so fast, his timing was off."
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Verlin will return Victor Sanders and Nahshon George to the starting lineup after bringing both off the bench in favor of Ty Egbert and Chad Sherwood at Northern Colorado.
Neither Sherwood nor Egbert knew of the decision until Verlin called out the first team in shootaround prior to the game. Sherwood still wasn't entirely sure until he saw his name on the board in the locker room.
"We do first team and second team in practices and shootarounds. He put me on first team, so I thought ‘maybe, we’ll see what goes on,’" Sherwood said. "Then when we got before the game it said I was going to start where 24 (Nahshon George) was expected to be so I was ready to go and I was glad I could perform."
Sherwood, a walk-on redshirt sophomore, made his coach look smart by nailing six 3-pointers in eight attempts with a team-high 18 points in the win at Northern Colorado.
Sherwood will continue to be the first guard off the bench with Sanders back in the starting lineup. Egbert often comes on early in games with Nate Sherwood to spell Mkrtychyan and George.
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The rivalry has spilled over into recruiting, with Idaho beating Eastern Washington for the signature of Clarkston star Trevon Allen.