Now, it gets serious.
Following a 6-0 mark in December, the Boise State men’s basketball team hits a turning point in its schedule — the beginning of Mountain West play with Saturday’s 5 p.m. game at Taco Bell Arena against Colorado State.
The conference, which seemed to be deeper than in recent seasons, didn’t flourish in nonconference play. As a league, the Mountain West is 11th of 32 conferences in RPI, and no team is higher than Boise State at 73rd.
“I see a lot of parity in this league, and a lot of talented teams,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “They may not have won all of the games that we’ve won in the past, but I know how good these teams are going to be, and how tough it’s going to be.”
There is no top-25 team, unlike in recent years with the likes of San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV, so resume-building wins may be sparse. However, there also are fewer obvious bottom feeders, most obviously Air Force looming near the top 100 after finishing at 240 and 251 the past two seasons.
“I think it’s a great thing for fans. On any night, anybody can beat anybody, but that’s truly the case this year,” Rice said. “... Three or four games might’ve made a complete difference in who we are as a league.”
That parity, however, could mean the Mountain West may be headed to one-bid territory for just the second time (2001). It puts more emphasis on another strong conference run for the Broncos, who also are taking on the role of the hunted.
“We kind of ran from behind last year, snuck up on some people. ... Everybody starts even. It’s a battle; you have to be the most competitive, scrappy team that night,” Rice said.
Here are my Mountain West rankings heading into Boise State’s league opener (eight teams began Mountain West play Wednesday):
1. Boise State: The league’s most complete team, the Broncos have two of the MW’s three top-50 wins (Oregon, UC Irvine).
2. UNLV: So talented, but so inconsistent, the song remains the same. Rebels have lost four of their last six games.
3. Fresno St.: Bulldogs appear to finally be putting their considerable talent together. A deep group with solid guards.
4. San Diego St.: What happened? Losses to San Diego, Grand Canyon were shocking. Still somehow can’t consistently score.
5. Air Force: A real pleasant surprise, the Falcons have a solid trio in Hayden Graham, Zach Kocur and Trevor Lyons.
6. New Mexico: Would have been top three two weeks ago, but ugly four-game losing skid was alarming. Defense very shaky.
7. Utah St.: Losing David Collette so late was a stunner, but Aggies have weathered it behind Jalen Moore and Chris Smith.
8. Colorado St.: Rams’ defense has improved after a hideous start, but strong shooting team hurt by Gian Clavell’s injury.
9. Nevada: Eric Musselman has Wolf Pack headed in the right direction and is a great recruiter. AJ West transfer a huge blow.
10. Wyoming: Josh Adams is a stud, but the Cowboys just lost too much talent to graduation, not much experience or real depth.
11. San Jose St.: Two Division I wins is already better than last season, but attrition is still hurting the Spartans.
MW TOURNEY A HOT TOPIC
Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt opted Monday to take it upon himself to speak for the Mountain West’s 11 coaches about the league’s recent announcement it will reduce the conference tournament to eight teams, starting in 2017.
Shyatt, on a conference call, said “this action was wrong, non-inclusive and quite opposite to where student-athletes’ welfare has gone in the last few years.” Rice said Tuesday he didn’t know of Shyatt’s statement in advance and also confirmed coaches were unaware of the change in the field until it was announced Dec. 18. He said all 11 coaches voted to keep the field at 11, but the Competition, Ethics and Sportsmanship Committee opted to reduce it.
“As coaches, you want all the teams in,” Rice said.
Rice supports the continuation of the tournament being hosted in Las Vegas, and that he “understands the dilemma,” with a lower cost having it on UNLV’s home floor. But he wants to protect the top teams, too.
DEFENSE, REBOUNDING FOCUS IN THE SECOND HALF
On most nights, Boise State shouldn’t have much trouble finding scoring, be it from Anthony Drmic, James Webb III, Nick Duncan, Mikey Thompson, Chandler Hutchison, whomever.
But Rice knows if the Broncos want another title, it will take the same things it did last year. Boise State is yielding 67.4 points per game, opponents are shooting 43.3 percent, and the Broncos average plus-3.6 rebounds per game. In Mountain West games in 2014-15, those numbers were 57.8 ppg, 41.7 percent and plus-2.9.
“When you look at why we won the league championship last year, we were a terrific defensive team statistically, and we could get stops when we needed to,” Rice said. “That’s always an area where any team can improve and get better. It definitely needs to be an area where we can get better. And rebounding. Those two things we were pretty consistent with last year. For us to be a good team, we have to get better at those.”
BUILDING A HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE
One of, if not the first, major point of emphasis when Rice was hired was his desire to make Taco Bell Arena one of the toughest places to play in the West. Boise State has often succeeded in that quest, going 69-15 since 2010-11. The Broncos’ current 15-game home winning streak is tied for the longest in Rice’s tenure and also the third-longest in school history.
“It’s huge,” Rice said. “... Fans certainly help us with that.”
Colorado St. (8-5, 0-0) at BSU (9-4, 0-0)
- When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Taco Bell Arena
- TV: ESPN3
- Radio: KBOI 670 AM
- Tickets: $7-$18 for juniors, $8-$19 for seniors, $9-$20 for adults at Taco Bell Arena box office or BroncoSports.com/ tickets
The past decade
The Mountain West’s NCAA Tournament bids and Top 25 teams in the AP’s preseason and final (pre-tournament) polls since the 2005-06 season: