First place in the Big Sky Conference will be on the line Saturday when the Eastern Washington Eagles visit the Cowan Spectrum to take on Idaho at 7 p.m.
Most probably think Eastern Washington will walk out of the Kibbie Dome with first place in hand. The Eagles have the best overall record in the Big Sky at 11-4, which includes an 88-86 win at Indiana and losses at Cal and Washington.
The Eagles are also the most potent offensive team in the conference, and among the best in the country. The Eagles rank No. 23 in the country Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency metric. It measures that EWU would score 110 points per every 100 possessions against an average defense.
The Eagles shoot 48.7 percent from the field as a team and have two leading scorers who shoot over 50 percent. Tyler Harvey, a 6-4 junior guard, shoots a ridiculous 51.6 percent from the field, shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 23.4 points. Venky Jois is an athletic 6-8 junior forward who scores 19.1 points per game at a 59-percent clip.
"You obviously have to start with those two guys," Idaho coach Don Verlin said. "But they’ve got some other guys who can knock it down. They’re very good offensively, they can score a lot of points and it’s going to be a real challenge for our defense."
So what's the defensive game plan for Idaho?
"I don’t know. Nobody has stopped them yet," Verlin said. "We’re just going to work like crazy and do what we do and try to make it hard for them to score, make them earn their points. That’s going to be the focus of this week’s game plan. We have to make them earn their points on offense."
Closing out on 3-point shots has been something of a problem for Idaho, which allowed Weber State to go 13-30 from deep in Saturday's 86-84 win.
The Vandals run a pack-line defense, which essentially zones the middle of the floor but mans up on the perimeter. Good ball movement, however, can leave shooters open on the perimeter and leave the Vandals to have to jump to close out. When disciplined, the defense is designed to have players in position to close out. That hasn't been the case a lot of the times for Idaho so far this season.
Closing out will be imperative on Saturday.
"It is this game, no question about it. They do such a good job of penetrating and getting you into a help defense situation, then you have to close out," Verlin said. "They can do a number of different things. We’re more approaching it from a concept of we got to make them earn their points. Let’s not give them a bunch of easy baskets in transition. Or put them on the free throw line, all those things, that’s what we’re trying to do, is make them earn their points."
Given the proximity of the two schools, 90 miles and 90 minutes away, the term "rivalry" is bound to be thrown around. Eastern Washington joined the Big Sky in 1987, spending nine years with the Vandals before Idaho bounced for the Big West. Idaho beat Eastern Washington in 1990 Big Sky title game to go to the NCAA Tournament, the Vandals' last appearance in the dance.
"We’re this close, we’re travel partners, it should almost be a rivalry game. When you’re at Idaho you look at Boise State and Washington State for our players but this hard to be third, no question about it, being as good as they are and as close as they are," Verlin said.
How quickly can a rivalry be fostered?
"I don’t know, I think those things take their natural course. I think with both teams being good and getting back to the Big Sky Conference I hope it just happens over time," Verlin said.
The two teams scrimmaged behind closed doors last season, a scrimmage Idaho won according to one player.