Boise State men's basketball team's toughness will be tested

The Broncos will face plenty of old demons in upcoming four-game stretch.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comFebruary 1, 2014 

  • BOISE STATE AT UNLV

    Time: 6:05 p.m.

    TV/radio: CBS Sports Network, 670 AM

    Records: Boise State 15-6, 5-3 Mtn. West; UNLV 14-7, 5-3

    Las Vegas line: UNLV by 3

    Series: UNLV leads 5-2 (Rebels won last meeting 68-64 in Las Vegas on March 5)

    Notable: Both teams have won four of their past five games. … BSU’s Ryan Watkins (11.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and UNLV’s Roscoe Smith (12.0 ppg, 12.3 rpg) are two of 16 Division I players averaging double-doubles.

— The Boise State men’s basketball team believes it is becoming more than just a team that can outscore its opponents. It feels it’s becoming something with more of an edge.

With what’s 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 we’re 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 aren’t 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).

“I’m 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, they’ve held San Jose State to 55 points and Air Force to 58.

“We’ve gotten grittier as the season’s gone on,” Rice said. “I think we were a little over reliant on our offense. … When it comes down to it, you’ve got to be able to have the mind-set that you’re 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. That’s us locking down on defense, playing with heart, passion and a ton of grit. The past couple games, that’s what we’ve been doing, and that’s 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.

“That’s what you’re always working for as a team — what are you really hanging your hat on. I think we’re 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 women’s 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 State’s 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

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