Today at 5 p.m. in Memorial Gym, the Idaho Vandals will tip off against the Eastern Oregon Mountaineers out of the NAIA’s Cascade Collegiate Conference. To steal a phrase from Kyle Whelliston, they don’t call them guarantee games for nothing — and this one is about as guaranteed as it gets. The Mountaineers are a top squad in NAIA Division II competition, but they shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge for the Vandals.
It’s Idaho’s final home game before WAC play begins, and the Vandals will no doubt be out for blood after a poor showing Wednesday at Washington State. Coach Don Verlin made clear his displeasure with his team’s performance that night, and we’re told his players were doing running drills until they dropped on Thursday.
We’ll have complete Vandal Nation Live coverage, with pregame at 4:30 p.m., tip at 5.
Let’s take a look at this year’s Eastern Oregon squad.
Eastern Oregon Mountaineers (7-4)
Cascade Collegiate Conference — 2009 record: 25-8 (lost to Oklahoma Wesleyan in Elite Eight)
The Mountaineers are one of the best squads in NAIA Division II play, having won at least 20 games in each of the last three seasons and advancing to the national tournament’s Elite Eight last year. They’re currently ranked #23 in the nation in the NAIA Division II Coaches’ Poll.
But NAIA Division II is a good two or three rungs down the ladder of collegiate basketball competition from the top, NCAA Division I, where the Vandals compete. Scholarships are fewer, the caliber of players is generally lower and the style of play is more relaxed. That doesn’t mean the battles aren’t fierce and heated, though. The Mountaineers are coming off a hard-fought 85-84 overtime loss to Northwest University, dropping them to 1-1 in conference play. Though the game against Idaho counts as an exhibition, Eastern Oregon’s pride is on the line and no player likes to lose.
It’s certainly not unheard of for lower-division teams to take down Division I schools. Perhaps the most famous recent example came this year, as NCAA Division II LeMoyne upset nationally-ranked Syracuse in a preseason exhibition game. If the Vandals start off flat or with any sense of entitlement, they’re liable to get shocked. But after Wednesday night’s drubbing at the hands of the Cougars, we think it’s more likely Idaho comes out aiming to light the scoreboard’s third digit.
The “Key statistic” feature is taking the night off because it’s not particularly illuminating to compare season-long stats between NAIA and NCAA teams.
- C #21 Jordan Gregg, Sr. — 13.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.6 apg
The biggest starter on the Mountaineers’ roster at 6-7, Gregg is probably quite the bruiser in NAIA competition. But he’ll have himself a handful in the paint tomorrow night, as he’s giving up two or three inches and about 50 pounds to the Vandals’ centers. That said, he’s an effective scorer and team-leading rebounder, hitting .523 from the floor. Unusually for a big man, he’s also got great hands — a 1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio is stellar for a guy his size — and he cans 77 percent of his free throws.
- F #14 Dan Stafford, Sr. — 10.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.5 apg
At 6-4, Stafford is a very small small forward, typifying the kind of player who can succeed at NAIA programs because of the generally smaller lineups. Unfortunately, tomorrow night he’ll be facing NCAA Division I players and that’ll be a challenge. He takes just under half his shots from 3-point range and hits only about 37 percent of them, while turning it over more often than he dishes. It will be interesting to see how Idaho defends him, because Luiz Toledo might not quite have the speed and athleticism necessary.
- G #15 Thomas McCarthy, Jr. — 9.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.0 apg
The designated long-baller for the Mountaineers, McCarthy takes 70 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and has a quite serviceable .417 shooting percentage out there. He’s also got smooth hands and trails only Gregg in the rebounding department. The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in college basketball, and if McCarthy is allowed to get hot the game could get far too close for any Vandal fan’s comfort.
- G #23 Jacques Wilson, Sr. — 7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.4 apg
Wilson sees the fewest minutes of any of the Mountaineers’ starters, and when you look at his stats it becomes pretty clear why. He shoots just 40 percent from the field and, to boot, is in unrequited love with the 3-point shot. Wilson jacks up half of his field goal attempts from downtown and hits just a third of them. For a guard, he’s also a pathetic ball-handler, turning it over twice for every assist he dishes up. Not a great shooter and a butterfingered ball-hog, too? Why this guy starts at all is beyond us.
- G #3 Josh Cottle, Jr. — 5.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.5 apg
A solid fixture at point guard, Cottle is the Mountaineers’ clear team leader. His 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio is the best on the team by far and quick hands have given him the team lead in steals with 16. He’s not a big-time shooter but he seems to know his limitations, as he averages just 4.5 shots per game. But going up against the Vandals’ lineup, the 5-10, 160 Cottle is ridiculously undersized. That’s going to make it exceedingly difficult for him to guard either of Idaho’s dual-threat backcourters, Steffan Johnson and Mac Hopson.
- F #20 Steven Sawyers, Sr. — 7.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 0.5 apg
Another of the kind of versatile, multi-threat players who can find homes on NAIA teams, Sawyers stands just 6-5, smaller than most Division I small forwards. He’s got a fairly solid inside game, hitting .507 from the field, but can also step back and can it from beyond the arc, where he’s a team-leading .421 shooter. Sawyers is not a great ball-handler, with 17 turnovers to his credit. But for instant production off the bench, he’s the Mountaineers’ man on call.
- C #25 Josh Landsverk, Sr. — 7.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 0.6 apg
There’s a chance Landsverk will start in place of Gregg tomorrow night, as he’s the Mountaineers’ biggest effective player — clocking in at 6-8, 260. That’s the kind of size that Eastern Oregon will need to slug it out in the post with Marvin Jefferson. But there’s a good reason he doesn’t start right now — Landsverk coughs it up, on average, once every 10 minutes he’s on court, good for a team-worst 0.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s also a poor .538 free-throw shooter, though he’s marginally more accurate from the floor than Gregg.