Washington State Cougars (6-1) at Idaho Vandals (5-2)
The Washington State Cougars will take the short trip to the University of Idaho for a battle between two rivals. When you think of college basketball excellence, the first teams that pop into your mind aren’t the Washington State Cougars or the Idaho Vandals, but this season both teams find themselves near the top of their respective conferences and have reason to believe they might be able to compete this season.
Only 15 miles of road separate the two teams so while this is a home game for the Vandals, you can expect a lot of Cougar fans in the stands. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 PM PST from the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. The Vandals are the home favorites, laying -3 points. The game total over-under is set at 146.5 points.
To say the expectations were low for the Washington State Cougars coming into this season would be an understatement. Nobody, even their own head coach, really expected them to be able to compete at a high level this year. Then something strange happened, the Cougs started to win. Washington State came out of the gates and won its preseason tournament, the Wooden Legacy Challenge.
It was a great start for the Cougars that showed they can win tournament style basketball and beat some good teams. The Cougars beat a very strong and ranked Saint Mary’s team, a solid St. Joseph’s squad, and a good San Diego State team. They ran their record up to 6-0 and even showed up in the “also receiving votes” section of the AP poll. The most impressive part of the run was that they trailed in every game, by as many as twenty to St. Joe’s, and never gave up.
The reason for the Cougars success can really be narrowed down to two players and one skill. The players? Malachi Flynn and Robert Franks. The skill? They can shoot the long ball. Washington State lives and dies on the long ball this year. They are one of only a very small handful of teams that shoot more threes than twos.
It would not be incorrect to say that Washington State just jacks up threes all game because that is pretty much their entire offensive strategy. Franks is averaging a very strong stat line of 18 points, close to 7 rebounds, and 3 assists a game. Whereas Flynn is posting a great line of his own at almost 18 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds. But more importantly, they are shooting a combined 42% from behind the arc. They can really fill it up and Cougars fans are reminded of the last time they had a sharpshooter on the squad, now Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson.
The Idaho Vandals are a small conference school that plays small conference teams. Their 5-2 record is built on playing lots of school’s casual fans didn’t even know existed. Ever heard of George Fox University? How about Sam Houston State? Nicholls? Yeah, me neither. These are the types of schools that the Vandals compete with on a day in and day out basis. Even a Pac-12 also-run like the Washington State Cougars represents a huge step up in competition for Idaho. So much so, that the Vandals don’t have another single game against a power five conference team on the schedule the rest of the season.
It’s not that the Vandals are bad, they are decent, they just aren’t used to playing against big conference teams, that get big conference level players. The Vandals can jack up their fair share of three-pointers as well, they are shooting close to 38% on the season, but they are 215th in the country in points per game at just over 73 a contest. The Big Sky conference looks to be a little down this year as no one team has emerged from the pack early in the season, so maybe Idaho will stay in the mix and find themselves in the NCAA tournament this season. But I wouldn’t count on it, the Vandals haven’t made the Big Dance since 1990.
To me, this is a mismatch. Yes, it’s a home game for Idaho, but it’s against a rival that is right next door and I expect the crowd to be a mixed bag of both team’s supporters. I think bettors got a little gun shy of Washington State when they dropped their last game to UC Davis. But when I said the Cougars lived and died by the three, I wasn’t exaggerating, and when you jack up 34 of them and miss 22? You are going to lose, and that’s what happened to the Cougars against UC Davis. But Franks and Flynn will, by a wide margin, be the two best players in the building and I expect the Cougs to find their shooting stroke once again and jump all over the Vandals. Give me Washington State on the road in a mild upset on the money line at +135.