Boise State basketball coach Leon Rice feels he has "the blueprint" for how to build a program, thanks to his dozen years under the coach of the current No. 1 team in country.
With an NCAA Tournament at-large bid within grasp, and a 9-7 record in one of the toughest leagues in country, Rice's old boss has admired the Broncos' progress from afar.
"I think he's done a remarkable job in such a short time," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the Idaho Statesman. "It's a situation that fits him well, and he has them on a great path."
Rice is the first coach in Boise State history with two 20-win seasons in his first three years. He led Boise State to a 21-9 regular season record this year and a No. 5 seed for this week's MW tournament - the Broncos were picked to finish eighth (out of nine) in the league preseason poll.
In the stands, the Broncos had four home crowds of more than 10,000 this season, the most since 1988-89.
The last of those crowds, in Taco Bell Arena for a 69-65 victory over San Diego State on Saturday, had Rice reflecting on his team's progress, and on its potential.
"That game got me really excited," Rice said. "We had a big crowd, it was a great game, we beat a great team, and that's what we're trying to build. I thought, 'Great, look what's to come.' It was really encouraging for me."
From his experience in Spokane, to the Boise State football players who step on the blue turf in the fall, Rice has found inspiration on how to construct a team that doesn't have to fit a certain mold.
Boise State's four-guard lineup has created headaches for opposing defenders, and the gritty attitude that Rice stresses has resulted in the Broncos outrebounding teams in 11-of-16 Mountain West games this season even though the tallest player stands at 6-foot-9.
"That's one of his strengths," Few said. "He'll put out his five best guys. With a fairly undersized team, it's amazing to see them do what they have."
Rice said he doesn't need a 7-foot center, two forwards, a point guard who distributes and a traditional scoring guard to build a roster. He points to players like Kellen Moore from the Broncos' football team to show that Boise State is the kind of place to grow raw or unproven talent.
"He does a great job finding those diamonds in the rough," said junior guard Jeff Elorriaga, a former walk-on. "He finds those guys that aren't necessarily the biggest, but are good players who want to work hard."
By playing four true freshmen and three other newcomers last year, Rice and the Broncos went 13-17 (3-11 in the MW), but established the foundation for this season's run.
"He doesn't take shortcuts," Boise State Athletic Director Mark Coyle said. "Leon had a vision when he got here, he's stuck to it, and here we are, talking about March Madness."
That vision is a little ahead of schedule, Rice admits, especially with a still-young roster that includes only one senior.
Boise State's success could mean suitors in the offseason, especially if the Broncos make a run in the Mountain West and NCAA tournaments. Rice and Coyle will sit down after the season to discuss Rice's contract, which pays $400,000 this season and will have two years remaining on the original five-year deal.
Few, no stranger to attention from other schools, said Rice will be one of the prime names this offseason when schools find themselves with vacancies.
"He's going to be a very hot commodity," Few said. "It'll be interesting to see if they understand his value, and continue to help build, like Gonzaga's done for me. If they can do that, he'll lead them to some great things."
Pointing to Coyle's prior experience at Kentucky before coming to Boise State, Rice said he and his athletic director are "absolutely on the same page."
Said Coyle, "I believe we have the right coach, and we have to be aggressive to provide him with what he needs."
"We have to capitalize on this (season) and be moving in the right direction all the time," Rice said. "We can't think small. Mark Coyle has seen big, and I think my requests are small to some of his visions."
One attempt to capitalize took place just before tipoff Saturday with the school announcing that 2013-14 season tickets are now on sale.
Rice added that the decision to remain in the Mountain West in all sports was "huge" in his and his program's future. The Broncos, who graduate only Kenny Buckner, could be one of the preseason league favorites next season.
"If we keep improving like we have, we know we could do some special things next year," Elorriaga said.
For the most part, thoughts of next year, new contracts and future upgrades can wait - but Rice has begun to see the fruits of his and his team's labors.
"We've come so far, and that's really exciting," he said. "To see that progress in a tangible way is terrific."
Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_southorn