PULLMAN – To place the Battle of the Palouse into historical context, the basketball teams at Washington State and Idaho had already been playing each other for 49 years when Cougars coach Ernie Kent was born in 1955.
Another full decade of Cougars v. Vandals on the hardwood elapsed by the time Idaho’s Don Verlin was born in 1965.
As far as NCAA Division I college basketball is concerned, no rivalry game west of the Mississippi River, or outside of the Ivy League, has had more legs than the one between WSU and Idaho. While it seems feasible two schools separated by 8 miles of highway could keep this going for another 114 years, stranger things have happened.
At no point did WSU think its rivalry with Gonzaga would cease to exist, but after 150 meetings, the Bulldogs decided not to re-up after a 2015 game at Beasley Coliseum. It remains to be seen if GU will make the 80-mile trip to Pullman again, or vice versa, despite the fact Cougs-Zags had been one of the Northwest’s preeminent hoops rivalries – and one that seemed to draw respectable numbers every year.
So while Kent cannot control every aspect of the Cougars’ scheduling efforts – “it is not a decision on my end and I would be more than happy to play (Gonzaga),” the coach reaffirmed Tuesday – he’s vowed not to put the Battle of the Palouse on life support as long as he holds his position at WSU.
For the 114th time since 1906, the Cougars (4-2) and Vandals (3-4) will link up Wednesday night with regional bragging rights on the line. Tipoff at Beasley Coliseum is set for 6 and the game will air on the Pac-12 Networks.
“A lot of people shy away from games like this, particularly BCS schools that are playing games like this,” Kent said. “I think it’s important to play the game, just because of the history of the rivalry that’s there. I don’t know if we’ll continue to play forever, but it’s an opportunity right now to play and get ready.”
The Cougars are favored by eight points to beat an Idaho team that opened the year with an exhibition loss to NAIA Lewis-Clark State and conceded a neutral-site game to Division II Northwest Nazarene three weeks later. The Vandals regrouped to beat North Dakota on the road in their latest contest.
WSU has the nation’s 11th-leading scorer and the Pac-12’s reigning Most Improved Player in senior Robert Franks (24.8 points per game). Idaho is struggling to replace six seniors who led the Vandals to a 22-9 record last season and 62 wins over the last three years. UI, playing without leading returner Nate Sherwood (psoriatic arthritis) this season, lost 95 percent of its scoring from 2017-18.
Still, recent history shows the Cougars still need to keep their heads on a swivel during the game.
“They’ve beaten us three of the last four times,” Kent said, “so it’s a big significance for us from that perspective.”
The Vandals decimated the Cougars 91-64 last season in Moscow, posting their third-largest margin of victory in the history of the series. WSU sneaked out with a 61-48 win in 2017, but Idaho won in 2016 (78-74) and 2015 (77-71). Prior to that, the Cougars had won 11 in a row.
WSU senior guard Viont’e Daniels is the only player on either side who’s played in each of the last four rivalry games. Only one Idaho starter, Trevon Allen – a Clarkston High graduate – played in the 2017 game.
Allen averages 14.1 points and 3.7 assists for Idaho, but to shut down the Vandals, WSU will also need to keep a keen eye on freshman sharpshooter Cameron Tyson, who leads UI with 16.4 ppg and tops the Big Sky in 3-pointers made per game (4.3) and 3-point percentage (57.7). Tyson, a Bothell, Washington, native, is seventh nationally in both categories.
“I think the fact they can sit on top of us and see so many games that we play over here, they know personnel,” Kent said. “I think before I got here, the two teams had those open gyms together where they would play together during the summer before I got here. So there’s a lot of knowledge that’s there and I think (Verlin) is an excellent coach that really prepares.”
WSU forward Isaiah Wade, a junior college transfer averaging 13 ppg, hasn’t played in the last three games and could miss a fourth. Kent said Wade will be a “game-time decision” Wednesday.
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