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Don Verlin: Idaho - Eastern Washington should develop into a rivalry

Creating a rivalry is not as simple as just having two teams close to in proximity to play each other. It takes time, close battles and perhaps a little bit of extra motivation. 

That may have happened on Jan. 10, when Eastern Washington escaped from the Cowan Spectrum with an 89-86 win over the Vandals. 

 

The game was back and forth, physical and was one shot away from being sent into overtime. 

Round two happens on Jan. 31 in Cheney, with implications huge for both sides. 

Idaho needs a win to keep pace above the eighth-place line to qualify for the Big Sky Tournament. Eastern Washington needs a win to keep pace with Sacramento State atop the conference for the right to host the conference tournament. 

Idaho men's basketball coach Don Verlin hopes the natural course of things play out to make this one of Idaho's biggest, if not its biggest, rivalry. To him, a true home-and-home format is what makes a college basketball rivalry great. The Vandals get that in alternating seasons with Washington State, but only get the "neutral" (not really) court arrangement with Boise State once a season. 

One thing Verlin has proposed for the future of this budding rivalry is to play the men's and women's game at the same site on the same day. Or, at the very least space the times out if they're going to be played at separate locations. He's annoyed that the men and women will be playing at the same time on Saturday. 

"(Idaho athletic director) Rob Spear and I talked yesterday about when we play Eastern, playing the men and women at the same day at the same site. I think that makes a lot of sense, and make it so it can really be a rivalry game," Verlin said. "It’d be fun to do something like that and I’ll mention it to (Eastern Washington men's basketball coach) Jim (Hayford) after the season and the Big Sky Conference. But I think as close as we are I think it’s a little bit of a shame that the men and women play at the same time on the same day, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me."

It's a plausible scenario, even given the current Big Sky scheduling format. Each of the 12 teams are paired into six sets of travel partners, Eastern Washington and Idaho being one of those pairs. It would simply be setting one on of the two dates the schools are slated to play as a doubleheader in Cheney and the other in Moscow on the second date. 

Why not? 

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Let's talk about defense. Idaho isn't incredibly good at it at the moment. The Vandals allowed EWU to go 30-57 from the field, 11-26 from 3 and 19-31 from inside the arc. That's 61 percent on shots attempted from two-point range. 

That goes against everything Idaho's pack-line defense intends to do. It's designed so that post defenders hover around the paint in a zone-like defensive structure, while perimeter defenders follow offensive players around the perimeter to cut off driving lanes and front shooters. There's a lot of switching and movement that makes it look like a hybrid between a man and a zone defense. 

The ideology is that you can allow 3-point looks and do your best to close out on looks, but that they won't hurt you if you suffocate opportunities around the rim. 

 "Statistics will show if you allow more layups than threes you come away with more losses. We’re stressing no layups and keeping our man in front and just late contest to the shooters," Idaho sophomore guard Sekou Wiggs said. 

Earlier in the season the defense looked frantic. Defenders were over pursuing on the perimeter because offenses moved the ball quickly in an effort to get shooters open. That left driving lanes open for guards. 

"We weren’t playing it right. We were on the pack line and in the gaps but the thing was we weren’t keeping our man contained so much that our backup defense had to help so much to where shooters got open. Now we figured it out a lot more," Wiggs said. 

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Seven teams sit within two games of each other in the conference standings, from tied-for-third Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado (4-3) and tied-for-ninth North Dakota and Southern Utah (2-5). The Vandals are one game over the missing-the-tournament line at 3-4. 

The word 'parity' stands out to Verlin given that his team was three points away from knocking off both Eastern Washington and Sacramento State, both one-loss teams in conference play. 

"We still feel good about ourselves. There’s a lot of parity in this league, we’ve played some good teams on the road, obviously Eastern at home here," Verlin said. "I really believe if we’re right and we sustain our intensity we can beat anybody in this league on any given night no matter where it’s played at. I really believe that, and I think this team will eventually do that. I just hope it’s sooner than later."



Sean Kramer
Sean Kramer is a freelance correspondent who covers the University of Idaho football team and men's basketball team.





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