Boise State Basketball

Start of Mountain West play provides clean slate for Boise State men’s basketball team

Boise State guard Justinian Jessup hits a jumper in the second half against Oregon on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, at Taco Bell Arena in Boise.
Boise State guard Justinian Jessup hits a jumper in the second half against Oregon on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, at Taco Bell Arena in Boise. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Aside from Nevada’s perfect 13-0 record and a No. 6 ranking in the latest Associated Press Top 25, the only thing consistent about Mountain West Conference men’s basketball during nonconference play has been inconsistency.

That’s good news for Boise State, which was picked to finish fourth in the preseason media poll but currently sits in a tie for eighth out of 11 teams with a record of 5-8.

The Broncos begin their conference schedule at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Wyoming (3-9) at Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. The game will be streamed live online on Stadium College Basketball’s Facebook page and available on the radio on 670 AM.

“Nevada, they’re their own animal right now, and the rest of us are all probably going through our own struggles,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “I don’t think anybody’s been head and shoulders consistently, ‘Wow, that team is unbeatable.’ So it gives you excitement.”

League play offers the Broncos a clean slate of sorts after the worst preseason record in the Rice era. Boise State is just one loss away from matching its loss total from all of last season (23-9).

“The reality is that we have held ourselves back,” Boise State senior David Wacker said. “I think Coach Rice and the other coaches are going to keep pressing us on as players, and we’re going to have a chance on Wednesday to start over and be 0-0 and be able to have our conference record really hopefully reflect more of who we are than some of these nonconference games.”

Here’s a look at the teams Boise State will have to go through to contend for a title:

TOP CONTENDERS

NEVADA WOLF PACK

Record: 13-0

KenPom rating: No. 8 (through Monday)

Returning starters: F Caleb Martin, sr.; F Cody Martin, sr.; F Jordan Caroline, sr.

Outlook: The Wolf Pack are coming off a program-record 29 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance. They have won back-to-back Mountain West regular-season titles and are heavily favored to become the league’s first team to win three in a row. Nevada starts a veteran lineup with five redshirt seniors in the Martin twins, Caroline, Tre’Shawn Thurman and Trey Porter. Thurman is a transfer from Omaha who sat out last season, while Porter is a graduate transfer from Old Dominion.

UTAH STATE AGGIES

Record: 10-3

KenPom: No. 48

Returning starters: G/F Dewayne Brown Jr., sr.; G Sam Merrill, jr.; F Quinn Taylor, sr.; G Diogo Brito, jr.

Outlook: The Aggies weren’t supposed to be in contention for a league title this season with the firing of coach Tim Duryea — now an assistant at Boise State — and the transfer of star guard Koby McEwen to Marquette. But Utah State has made the media’s ninth-place prediction a mockery. The Aggies boast wins over Saint Mary’s and UC Irvine, both of which rank among the KenPom top 100.

FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS

Record: 9-3

KenPom: No. 65

Returning starters: G Deshon Taylor, sr.; F Sam Bittner, sr.

Outlook: The Bulldogs were picked one spot behind Boise State in the preseason poll in fifth, but they already have wins over Big 10 (Northwestern) and Pac-12 (California) schools. If not for a surprising 64-60 loss to Utah Valley in their nonconference finale, the Bulldogs would be one of three Mountain West schools entering league play with double-digit wins. And Fresno accomplished much of this without the help of All-Mountain West senior guard Deshon Taylor, who has been out since the beginning of December with a dislocated left elbow.

WILD-CARD CONTENDERS

SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS

Record: 8-5

KenPom: No. 120

Returning starters: F Jalen McDaniels, so.; F Matt Mitchell, so.; G Devin Watson, sr.

Outlook: The Aztecs have shown a great deal of inconsistency to start the season. After winning the conference’s tournament title last season and earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament, SDSU was picked second in the preseason poll. The Aztecs have wins over the likes of Xavier and BYU, but inexplicably lost 82-61 to Brown on Dec. 29.

NEW MEXICO LOBOS

Record: 6-6

KenPom: No. 187

Returning starters: G/F Dane Kuiper, sr.

Outlook: New Mexico was dealt an early blow with the loss of redshirt junior guard JaQuan Lyle to a ruptured Achilles tendon during practice on Sept. 29. But the Lobos still have 3-point ace Anthony Mathis and welcome preseason newcomer of the year Vance Jackson, who sat out last season after transferring from UConn. New Mexico was tabbed as one of five “under the radar” teams to watch by NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, but they have been an up-and-down team.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

JUSTIN JAMES, WYOMING: A preseason all-Mountain West honoree, James leads the Cowboys in points (22.4), rebounds (9.3), assists (4.4) and steals (1.5) this season. The 6-foot-7 senior guard’s 18.9 ppg last season ranked second in the conference, and he leads the league in that category this season.

CALEB MARTIN, NEVADA: The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year received preseason All-America honors from the Associated Press and ESPN. The 6-7 senior forward leads the Wolf Pack at 19.9 points per game and has a team-best 42 3-pointers and 19 steals this season. Martin scored a career-high 33 points with seven assists, four steals and two blocks in an 86-71 win over Utah.

DESHON TAYLOR, FRESNO STATE: Taylor set a program record with 200 made free throws last season while averaging 17.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The 6-2 senior guard has been out since the start of December with that elbow injury, but he is expected to return to the Bulldogs’ lineup soon. In eight games this season, he’s averaging 18.0 points, 5.0 assists and 3.6 rebounds.

Boise State’s Mountain West home games

Saturday, Jan. 5: San Diego State, 8 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Tuesday, Jan. 15: Nevada, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Tuesday, Jan. 19: Fresno State, 3:30 p.m. (AT&T SportsNet)

Tuesday, Jan. 26: Wyoming, 2 p.m. (Stadium Facebook)

Wednesday, Feb. 6: UNLV, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday, Feb. 9: San Jose State, noon (MW Network)

Saturday, Feb. 23: Utah State, 2 p.m. (Stadium Facebook)

Wednesday, Feb. 27: Colorado State, 7 p.m. (Stadium Facebook)

Saturday, March 9: Air Force, 5 p.m. (AT&T SportsNet)

Note: The Mountain West Tournament is March 13-16 in Las Vegas.

Rachel Roberts has been covering sports for the Idaho Statesman since 2005. She attended Northwest Nazarene University and is Boise born and raised.
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