Faced with a hypothetical situation in which his two seniors would score two points apiece in Boise State’s first-round NIT game, men’s basketball coach Leon Rice would not have been optimistic.
“I would have said we lose by 20,” he said.
Nick Duncan and James Reid combined for four points Tuesday at Utah, yet Boise State won 73-68, buoyed by Broncos who all are slated to return next season.
When it comes to postseason tournaments like the NIT, it gives teams extra opportunities for its youngsters to practice and get game experience. Rice said as the Broncos get set to face Illinois on the road at 7 p.m. Monday on ESPN, they’re coming off one of their best games of the season, and means more since it came in March.
“I have to keep trusting them, sometimes I look out there and I’m like ‘oh boy, it’s crunch time and we have a bunch of freshmen out there,’” Rice said. “I can’t look at them as freshmen anymore, because they’re doing things they couldn’t have done in Costa Rica (in August), couldn’t have done at the start of the year in Charleston.”
That increased maturity, and the coaching staff’s confidence in the youth movement, was on display Tuesday in a pivotal situation.
Trailing 61-58 with just under 5 minutes to play, a play was set up for freshman guard Marcus Dickinson to come off a ball screen at the top of the 3-point arc. Dickinson had attempted 22 3-pointers all season, but he drilled it, tying the game.
“It’s one thing for the coaches to trust in him, a true freshman in this stage ... It’s another thing for him to knock that shot down when it counted most, that says so much about him,” said junior guard Chandler Hutchison, who had 34 points.
Twice in three seasons prior to the Broncos’ current run, they won 20 games but were not picked for the NIT and therefore did not choose to play in the postseason. Having a young squad, Boise State had its fingers crossed to get into the NIT and continue to get experience against quality opponents.
“It’s good getting these extra opportunities ... we’ve got to keep building on this,” said Dickinson, who had a career-best 12 points.
Before starting NIT play, true freshmen accounted for 18.1 percent of the Broncos’ scoring, the sophomores 32 percent. If he starts Monday at Illinois, freshman guard Justinian Jessup will set a new freshman record with his 31st. Freshman guard Alex Hobbs had all three of his double-digit scoring games this season in the Broncos’ four games prior to Utah.
“The neat thing for me, I looked out there and we were like freshman, freshman, freshman, sophomore, junior, that’s exciting,” Rice said.
Just as Boise State approached the tough road test at Utah, it will do the same heading to the State Farm Center, where the Illini are 13-5 this season. With a shot to be one of the final eight teams in the NIT field with a victory, the Broncos have no problem trusting that those seniors will bounce back, or that they can use the freshmen in clutch spots.
“You’re one of the last ones standing, and that’s a special feeling and a special opportunity,” Rice said.
QUICK HITS: Illinois, coached in the interim by assistant Jamall Walker, will introduce new head coach Brad Underwood at a Monday news conference. Former Boise State assistant Danny Henderson coached on Underwood’s Oklahoma State staff this season. ... With a win, Rice will take sole possession of second place among Boise State coaches with 143 victories. ... The winner of Monday’s game will play either Central Florida or Illinois State on Wednesday. Boise State would play on the road regardless of who wins between the Knights and Redbirds, while Illinois would host if Central Florida wins. ... Sophomore forward David Wacker (28 starts) will not play for Boise State after injuring his shoulder Tuesday.
BSU at Illinois
- What: NIT second round
- When: 7 p.m. MT Monday
- Where: State Farm Center (15,500), Champaign, Ill.
- Records: Boise State 20-11, Illinois 19-14
- Broadcast: ESPN
- Radio: KBOI 670 AM