In the Western Athletic Conference's increasingly rigid men's basketball caste system, Boise State is unquestionably mediocre.
Average. Middle of the road. Ho-hum. Comfortably or uncomfortably — depending on your point of view — stuck in the middle.
That much was clear after Saturday's 73-64 loss to Hawaii at Taco Bell Arena.
The loss dropped the Broncos further behind the league's top tier — Nevada, Louisiana Tech, Utah State and Hawaii. BSU is 0-7 against those four and 5-0 against the WAC's soft underbelly — Idaho, San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State.
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"Pretty much how the conference is is the teams that struggle are on the bottom, and then the top four teams and then we're stuck somewhere in the middle," senior center Kareem Lloyd said. "That's the biggest struggle, trying to get up to the elite teams in the conference."
Boise State is a long way from them.
Sure, they've been in nearly every conference game, often leading in the early going, but the Broncos lack the intensity and offensive firepower to
sustain such efforts.
Against the Warriors, whose road record reads like the Washington Generals', Boise State sprinted to a 19-6 edge. Just enough to tantalize before its offense ground to a halt.
Despite solving, at least temporarily, their turnover issues and committing only eight — one in the second half — they failed to convert the extra shots into more points, shooting 37.3 percent for the game.
"That's kind of the trademark of an inconsistent team. Something always gets you," BSU coach Greg Graham said.
And something always gets the Broncos against the WAC elite.
Sometimes it's a lucky shot, like Paul Milsap's off-balance 3-pointer that lifted Louisiana Tech to a victory earlier this season.
Most of the time, it's better players, better execution and more mental toughness.
Hawaii simply had more options to turn to during the grinding stretches that seem to crop up during every conference game. Such players allow you to shorten scoring droughts.
The Broncos counter with poor execution and poor decision-making. Saturday they had both.
They couldn't — or wouldn't — foul the appropriate player late in the game, a breakdown that led to an uncontested game-sealing 3-pointer. The poor decision-making leads to turnovers and ill-conceived 3-point attempts. Boise State was 8-of-28.
The inconsistency doesn't extend just from game to game, but, for these Broncos, minute to minute.
"We just have lulls and energy lapses and scoring breakdowns," junior guard Coby Karl said.
Against the bottom-feeders of the WAC, BSU can get away with such efforts — barely. Against the top dogs, no way. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they're going to have to face two and possibly three of the front-runners in order to make noise in the WAC Tournament.
"It sucks and it hurts, too. We seem to back down to the better teams in the conference," Lloyd said.
Saturday offered evidence to support that notion. Outside of Karl (26 points) and Lloyd (11 points, 10 rebounds), the Broncos seemed to disappear against Hawaii. Broncos not named Karl and Lloyd shot 10-of-37 from the field Saturday.
Hawaii, despite having lost 20 of its last 22 road games, including eight straight in the WAC, was clearly the aggressor.
The solution: Graham called it playing harder and smarter. BSU's coach talked about learning how to play at this level and then learning how to win.
It's too late for that.
Such lessons should already be learned. It's the middle of February. The WAC Tournament, the Broncos' last hope of an NCAA Tournament bid, is less than a month away.
The problems cannot be fixed in February. They need to be dealt with in November and December.
Here's one way — and it's much easier than dumping timid players and replacing them with better and tougher ones — play a better non-conference schedule.
Drop the Sacramento States and Montana State-Northerns. Play some tough games against Pac-10 or Big 12 teams on the road. Introduce the young players and the junior college transfers to big-time college basketball before Hawaii and Nevada show up in February and leave you complaining about lulls and backing down.
It doesn't matter if the big schools won't return the game. Take on some two-for-ones. Do a three-for-one if that's what it takes to bulk up the schedule and steady your team for the conference slate. Sure, it might lead to some whuppins. But it should lead to a tougher mentality and less deer-in-the-headlights looks in February.
Unless, of course, everyone's satisfied with being mediocre.