BOISE — The Boise State mens basketball team believes it is becoming more than just a team that can outscore its opponents. It feels its becoming something with more of an edge.
With whats coming up, the Broncos need it.
Winners of four of their past five after winning three of their previous eight, the Broncos play Saturday in a building where they are 0-5 before hosting No. 5 San Diego State on Wednesday.
I think were finally getting our toughness in a way. It was something we were missing a little bit in the middle of the season, senior Jeff Elorriaga said. I hope we can keep it going, because the next two games arent going to be easy.
In fact, the next four games are a rough, but potentially rewarding stretch, starting Saturday at UNLV. The Broncos take on the Aztecs four days later, then visit Utah State on Feb. 8 (where they are 0-17 all-time) before hosting New Mexico on Feb. 12 (against whom they are 0-5 all-time).
Im really, really trying hard not to look at all (of it), beyond the next day or two, because I know this grueling stretch we have coming up, Boise State coach Leon Rice said.
As the Broncos have rediscovered that extra toughness, it is most evident in their rebounding, an aspect of the game in which Rice says his team has to be the scrappiest dog.
Even with 6-foot-9 senior Ryan Watkins as its tallest player, Boise State is plus-9.7 rebounds per game in Mountain West play, 6.3 ahead of second-place San Diego State. Last season, the Broncos averaged 2.5 more rebounds per game than their opponents in Mountain West games. Watkins leads the nation with 14.3 rpg in conference games.
Defensively, in the Broncos last two wins, theyve held San Jose State to 55 points and Air Force to 58.
Weve gotten grittier as the seasons gone on, Rice said. I think we were a little over reliant on our offense. When it comes down to it, youve got to be able to have the mind-set that youre going to be able to get some stops down the stretch.
The mind-set was forged out of close losses to San Diego State and Wyoming, plus an 84-75 setback Jan. 21 at New Mexico during which the Lobos shot 63.6 percent from the field in the second half.
We basically were getting tired of people scoring on us. Thats us locking down on defense, playing with heart, passion and a ton of grit. The past couple games, thats what weve been doing, and thats been helping us succeed, sophomore Mikey Thompson said.
Boise State may need some of that grit against a long, athletic Rebels team ranked No. 1 in the nation against 3-pointers, allowing teams to make just 26 percent of them. Junior Roscoe Smith leads the country with 12.3 rebounds per game, and junior Khem Birch is third in the nation with 3.7 blocks per game.
That front line is probably one of the best in college basketball, Rice said
The Broncos will in part combat that with Watkins and 6-8 freshman Nick Duncan, now a likely fixture as a starter. Adding a little more versatility with some tenacity, Elorriaga said the team is building an identity, to which Rice agrees.
Thats what youre always working for as a team what are you really hanging your hat on. I think were settling into a better rotation and a little bit of who we are, maybe, Rice said.
Key test Saturday for BSU women
Riding a five-game winning streak, the Boise State womens basketball team can break free of a tie for second in the Mountain West on Saturday.
The Broncos (11-8, 6-2) host UNLV (9-11, 6-2) at 2 p.m., facing a similarly hot team coming off a subpar nonconference showing. Boise States five straight wins have come against the teams in the bottom five of the conference standings, so the Rebels represent a step up in competition.
Saturday will pair two teams that have shot and defended the 3-pointer well. UNLV leads the conference shooting a 44.9-percent clip from 3-point range, and Boise State is second at 41 percent. They also are the two of the top three perimeter defenses, each allowing opponents to make fewer than 29 percent of their attempts.
Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_Southorn