Boise State winning rebounding battles — most of the time

The Broncos face a big test at New Mexico, which leads the series 4-0.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comJanuary 21, 2014 

New Mexico Fresno St Basketball

New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow is averaging 20.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season. “Cameron Bairstow’s probably one of the most improved players in the country,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “The way he’s playing, you can certainly make the case for him as MVP of the league.”



    When: 7:15 p.m. Tuesday

    Radio/TV: KBOI 670 AM/CBS Sports Network

    Records: Boise State is 13-5, 3-2; New Mexico is 13-4, 4-1 (won 89-78 at Fresno State on Saturday)

    Vegas line: Lobos by 5

    Series: New Mexico leads 4-0 (Lobos won 60-50 on Feb. 16, 2013 in Albuquerque in last meeting)

    Notable: Boise State, which was delayed arriving for its Dec. 10 game at Kentucky, was scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque about two hours later than expected, a little before midnight Monday. The Broncos’ flight from Boise to Denver was late, and the connection departed without them. Instead, the Broncos were diverted to Santa Fe, and took a bus from there to Albuquerque. ... The Lobos, led by first-year coach Craig Neal, are yielding 71.3 ppg after giving up 60.6 ppg last season, but are scoring 77.4 ppg, as opposed to 67.3 ppg last season. … Opponents are making 76.4 percent of their free throws against New Mexico, fourth-best in the nation.

Their tallest player is often outsized, most of the time they use four guards at once, yet the Boise State men’s basketball team is consistently winning the rebounding battle.

After being outrebounded in their last five December games, the Broncos have come out ahead in all five of their Mountain West games.

“I don’t know how our guys do it,” coach Leon Rice said.

The Broncos will try to make it six straight games on top in rebounding margin Tuesday at New Mexico (7:15 p.m. MT, CBS Sports Network).

For Boise State to accomplish that, it’s not as much about skill as it is will.

Before the season, Rice used an analogy he cribbed from the movie “World War Z,” wherein the zombies — not of the slow, shuffling variety — would pile atop one other trying to climb toward the living. The Broncos, with their height disadvantage, must hunt live balls.

“It takes a lot of effort,” Rice said. “We coach it a lot, it’s attention to detail on that stuff that we have to have. The moment it slides, we’re going to get our hats handed to us on the glass. That can happen at any time in this league, because there are so many big, athletic teams. We just have to have that sense of urgency every single game.”

Outside of their lull in the second half of December, the Broncos have outrebounded 12-of-13 teams, and are 11-2 when holding the rebounding edge, 3-3 otherwise. Overall this season, they have a plus-5.7 rebound per game margin, tied for third in the Mountain West with New Mexico.

In conference play, the Broncos are plus-10 per game, No. 1 in the league. Next best is San Diego State, at plus-3.4.

On Jan. 8 at San Diego State, the Broncos had five more boards than the Aztecs, and on Saturday, had 12 more than Utah State. Both are 26th and 10th, respectively, in the nation in overall rebounding margin.

“Because we’re the smaller team, we have to work that much harder on the boards,” junior guard Derrick Marks said. “In practice, we just emphasize defense and rebounding, and it’s starting to show.”

Marks, who was named Mountain West player of the week Monday, had eight rebounds last Tuesday at Nevada, one shy of his career-high. Contributions like that will be key, Rice says, to take some pressure off senior Ryan Watkins.

The chairman of the boards for the Broncos, Watkins is averaging 9.7 rebounds per game, with nine or more in each Mountain West game. He has pulled down 82 offensive rebounds, or 4.6 per game, No. 3 in the nation. On a team full of deft shooters, extra possessions make a big difference.

“It does,” Watkins said. “Especially when you have people who shoot the lights out like Jeff (Elorriaga) or (Anthony) Drmic, people who can score. Usually it’s three points, and that’s a big help for us.”

Once again, that yeoman’s effort on the boards will be absolutely necessary in Albuquerque.

The Lobos boast a 7-foot center in Alex Kirk and a 6-9 forward in Cameron Bairstow, whom Rice said is likely the league’s MVP so far. They average a combined 16.5 rebounds per game.

Just another tough task in a never-ending stream of challenges.

“The moment that (effort) wavers, you can get beat by 15-20 on the glass, and New Mexico is the kind of team that can do that to you,” Rice said. “We can’t let our effort waver, our attention to detail, just that hunger to get every single ball, and I think these guys have shown that, and that’s why they’ve survived on the boards.”

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