Washington State at UCLA
Tipoff: 2 p.m. Pacific today, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles.
Records: WSU 9-2 overall, 2-2 Pac-12; UCLA 9-2, 5-0.
Players: Wazzu never has started four freshmen in its history, but coach Kyle Smith’s nationally notable recruiting class is being put to work more than expected. Recently, the Cougs have been trotting out three of them — big men Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson, and well-rounded 6-foot-8 forward Andrej Jakimovski. There’s a good chance guard TJ Bamba enters the first five against the Bruins. Sophomore guard Noah Williams, who’s perhaps been WSU’s best defender this year and contributes double digits in scoring, took a rough back-first fall Saturday at Stanford, and is questionable. Forward DJ Rodman and backup point guard Ryan Rapp (COVID-19 list) are doubtful. WSU, which ranks 11th in turnovers (14.7 per game), will be short on experienced ball-handlers against the conference’s top team. At least point guard Isaac Bonton is playing at his best. He averaged 20 points, 6.5 assists, four rebounds and shot 14-for-24 in the Cougs’ Bay Area split last week. WSU’s youthful frontcourt was bit by Stanford’s stout, tested bigs. To be sure, UCLA’s got size too, and options. Four Bruins score in double figures on average — 6-6, 220-pound guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., 6-9 guard Chris Smith, 6-6 guard Johnny Juzang and 5-11 guard Tyger Campbell.
Game themes: UCLA is the only Pac-12 team unbeaten in the league. The Bruins, rebuilding well under second-year coach Mick Cronin, squeezed past the Arizona schools last week. They’re receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. We know WSU can be competitive in the Pac-12 — especially on defense — based on its showings against Arizona, Cal and Stanford, but it feels like this team’s ceiling is uncertain. With the Cougs potentially playing short-handed against a lengthy and versatile opponent like UCLA, it might be tough to get a clearer picture of where they stand.
Northern Colorado at Idaho
Tipoff: 6 p.m. Pacific today, Memorial Gym, Moscow.
Records: Northern Colorado 5-6 overall, 2-4 Big Sky; Idaho 0-9, 0-6.
Players: Bodie Hume, a 6-foot-7 All-Big Sky junior guard who won the league’s freshman of the year award two seasons ago, has developed into one of the better talents in the conference. He ranks sixth in scoring (16.2 points per game), third in rebounding (7.5), and shoots 48.5 percent from the field. His 2.3 made 3-pointers per game rank second in the conference. Northern Colorado’s offense averages 66.5 points, placing near the bottom of the league (UI averages 63 points). The Bears’ defense comes in at No. 4 in the Big Sky, surrendering 67.9 points against the Vandals’ 77.2 points allowed. Northern Colorado holds opponents to under 30 percent from 3-point range. UI’s offense and defense sit last and second-to-last in the league standings, respectively. The Vandals hit more than 50 percent of their field-goal attempts in two losses last week to Southern Utah, but they couldn’t get stops when needed. Leading UI is senior post Scott Blakney, who averages 11.2 points.
Game themes: UI closes out January with a five-game homestand. The Vandals and Bears meet again at the same venue at noon Saturday. Northern Colorado, which was predicted to finish fifth in the conference by coaches and third by the media, enters on a three-game skid. The Bears also sustained a surprising blowout loss Dec. 23 to Idaho State. The Vandals have had enough stretches of winning basketball to make you think: Can they finally get the monkey off their back here?
Idaho at Northern Colorado
Tipoff: 5:30 p.m. Pacific today, Bank of Colorado Arena, Greeley, Colo.
Records: Idaho 6-4 overall, 5-1 Big Sky; Northern Colorado 3-8, 2-4.
Players: UI welcomed back transfer guard Gabi Harrington — who missed six games for an undisclosed reason — in a sweep last week of Southern Utah, but again was without star post Natalie Klinker. The senior sat out for two games in December with a lower-body injury, then returned for the Northern Arizona series Dec. 31-Jan. 2. Klinker is key in the Vandals’ operation, but UI has shown it can win regardless. It enjoys the services of two Big Sky stars in point guard Gina Marxen (13.6 points and a conference-best 4.20 assists per game) and all-league sophomore Beyonce Bea (15.1 points, No. 4 in the Big Sky). Idaho boasts the the conference’s No. 2 offense. Northern Colorado sophomore forward Alisha Davis (6-2) averages 14.6 points per game and owns league-best marks in rebounds (10.5) and blocks per game (2.4). So, Klinker’s return would be a welcome sight for UI fans. The Bears are the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the conference (35.6 percent), but their overall offense and defense rank among the Big Sky’s bottom three.
Game themes: Even without fans in attendance, Idaho coach Jon Newlee has maintained his emphasis on road games. It’s one reason why he consistently schedules away contests against Power Five opponents — this year, those included Washington State (now No. 25), No. 23 Texas and No. 6 Arizona. Idaho will begin a five-game road trip, which continues Saturday against the Bears. Going 5-for-5 off the Palouse would be a major boost, and it’s a possibility here. The Bears have had a disappointing start, and the Vandals meet league bottom-feeders Weber State and Eastern Washington after this series.