The Vandals are in a unique position. After the nine-game win streak, Idaho lost both of their final games at home against two teams that are right on their heels for second place in the Big Sky.
This weekend’s matchup with Southern Utah is a good chance for the Vandals to reestablish what made them so dominant for that stretch.
The Thunderbirds (3-24, BSC 2-14) do not pass the eye nor numbers tests. They have not won consecutive games yet this season and they started February by losing four conference games by at least 15 points. Of the 21 statistical categories that the Big Sky provides numbers for, Southern Utah is last or second to last in the conference in 14 of them. The team gets steals, tallying 10.2 per game, but that is it.
Based on that data alone, Idaho (15-12, BSC 11-5) has a decent shot at winning this game and going into the conference tournament on a high note.
In their first game this year, Idaho started strong and never let their foot off the pedal. Despite a program-high 28 turnovers, the Vandals held the Thunderbirds to just 51 points.
Fans can expect a similar performance on the road in Cedar City on Friday.
Idaho locked down teams with less effective offenses. In their games against Montana and North Dakota and their bottom three offenses, the Vandals gave up 56 and 64 points, respectively. UI Women’s Basketball Head Coach Jon Newlee and his staff know how to take advantage of a weak offense.
On the other end of the court, Southern Utah poses a unique but manageable challenge.
The Thunderbirds base their entire game plan off of forcing turnovers and frustrating opponents. However, Idaho proved that even when that strategy is working, it may not be enough to secure victory. In their last game against Southern Utah, Idaho shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc and the field while holding the Thunderbirds to just 28.95 percent from the field.
Southern Utah needs to do more than just win the turnover battle in order to win, and they have yet to accomplish that so far this season.
In its three wins, Southern Utah averaged about 68.6 points per game. Even when this team is at their best, they do not run at a high-octane offense like the Weber State attack that torched Idaho for 101 points.
The Vandals have the firepower to go off on any given night and make up for offensive inefficiency on one part of the floor. Southern Utah can only score if every single thing goes right.
Even against the lesser competition, Idaho has plenty of incentive to bring their best to the court.
As of the beginning of the week, Idaho is only one game ahead of Idaho State, Weber State, Portland State and Eastern Washington in a four-way logjam for third place in the standings. Montana is right behind them with a 9-7 conference record.
Idaho has to win both games to ensure that they can keep their cushy seeding and first round bye in the conference tournament. A slip up in either of this week’s games could have drastic effects on the Vandals’ spot in the tournament.
Fortunately, this team is stocked full of veterans that realize the gravity of their situation and what they need to do to take care of business against Southern Utah. Expect the Vandals to secure an early lead and coast on it through the end and rest some of their starters.
Jonah Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@jonahpbaker