Boise State Basketball

As Boise State basketball nears first 20-loss season, where did it all go wrong?

Rice on Boise State’s home losses: ‘I hate it.’

The Boise State men's basketball team lost 83-72 to UNLV on Wednesday night at Taco Bell Arena to fall to 6-5 at home this season. The five home losses matches the most for the Broncos under coach Leon Rice.
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The Boise State men's basketball team lost 83-72 to UNLV on Wednesday night at Taco Bell Arena to fall to 6-5 at home this season. The five home losses matches the most for the Broncos under coach Leon Rice.

Considering what the Boise State men’s basketball team had lost, it says plenty about where the program has been that the Broncos were predicted to finish fourth in the Mountain West preseason poll.

Three of their top four scorers had to be replaced, but 20 or more wins in six straight seasons means something. Instead, Boise State (12-19) will set a school record for losses — in a down year for the conference. Unless the Broncos win the national championship, their 20th loss will mark the most in a season.

As the Broncos open the Mountain West tournament Wednesday against Colorado State (12-19) at noon MT Wednesday in Las Vegas, the most glaring weakness is the inability to finish, having gone 1-9 in games decided by three points or fewer or in overtime.

It used to be luck could be measured in the same imprecise way we could try to put a number to heart, ambition, jealousy or confidence. But stat guru Ken Pomeroy devised a formula to do so when it comes to college basketball, and as luck (or lack thereof) would have it, Boise State is ranked as the unluckiest team in the nation, out of 353 schools.

But even if the Broncos were 5-5 in those close games, a 17-14 season would not be seen as a massive success. If they were 9-1 in those games, would we say, “Yeah, they’ve just been lucky,” or would the Broncos be seen as beacons of toughness?

Losing nine of 10 in that fashion is a bit of luck (hello, Nevada loss), but it’s also become a trend. So, how did Boise State get here? We’ll take a look at some reasons.

The Boise State men's basketball team led by two points and had the ball in the final minute Tuesday night against No. 10 Nevada. But a missed shot by the Broncos and a 3-pointer by the Wolf Pack swung the game Nevada's way.

1. LATE DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES

Every team in America talks about “finishing,” and the Broncos were great at it last season. But they’ve not done it in 2018-19. There’s no bigger reason than failing to get key stops late — in their five close conference losses, they’ve forced one turnover in the final minute of regulation or final minute of overtime with no rebounds off a missed field goal. The Broncos didn’t get a shot off in the final minute of last week’s 73-72 loss at New Mexico, in part because the Lobos got two offensive rebounds.

As a team, the Broncos’ field-goal percentage defense of 44.8 percent is 239th, on pace for their worst since 2011-12, their debut campaign in the Mountain West with a team heavily reliant on youngsters.

2. NO “ALPHA DOG”

At the moment, Boise State doesn’t have a big-time shot creator, though Justinian Jessup’s improvement has been notable. Fans around here saw one of the best “give me the damn ball” players in school history in Derrick Marks, but there was a time when some wondered why he always was taking the last shot — until he started making them.

Rice has said the losses have at times forced players to overexert themselves late in games, and confidence can sometimes waver. Three players are scoring 14.4 points per game or more in conference play, but that killer instinct hasn’t settled in yet.

3. REBOUNDING ISSUES

It’s a simple stat — Boise State is 1-13 this season when it has fewer rebounds than its opponent, and 12-6 when it has more. Rebounding may not be the be-all, end-all stat, but in a season where the game has come down to a single basket 10 times, having another possession or preventing an extra one would be huge.

No player averages more than 4.5 rebounds per game. The athleticism of Chandler Hutchison and the size advantage of Chris Sengfelder are clearly missed.

4. POINT GUARD DEFICIENCIES

Attention often goes to the big men, and though that group has not been as productive as would be expected for such a veteran unit, the Broncos haven’t gotten much from the point guards, either. Junior Marcus Dickinson is an excellent defender, but offensively, he struggles — 39.1 percent from the field, including 32.3 percent from 3-point range. His 56 assists in 990 minutes aren’t much.

Junior college transfer Pat Dembley, the primary backup at the spot, has played 499 minutes and has 57 turnovers. Dickinson has 30 fewer in almost twice as many minutes. Dembley is shooting 33.5 percent, 27 percent from 3. When the point guards struggle to create offense, and the bigs underperform, that puts far too much pressure on the wings.

5. A ROSTER IN TRANSITION

Boise State is redshirting an unusual amount of freshmen — five — who were likely to be in the rotation next year. One (Jaycson Bereal) has left the team. Perhaps some could have helped here and there, but none is a true point guard, and though 6-foot-10 forward Mikey Frazier has impressed on the scout team, he wouldn’t have stolen too many minutes from the two seniors in the middle.

The Broncos lost not only Hutchison, a first-round NBA Draft pick, but also those other two top scorers in Lexus Williams and Sengfelder, graduate transfers who bolstered the roster for one year and accompanied Hutchison well.

The two new JC additions, Dembley and RJ Williams, have been inconsistent and are responsible for the most turnovers on the team despite averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game. It would not have made sense to burn a redshirt late in the season, so the Broncos have rolled with, as most teams do, an eight- or nine-man rotation. The bench rarely has given a big boost, putting further stress on the starters.

With two incoming Pac-12 transfers, the team’s top four scorers expected to return, the wealth of redshirts and Rice’s track record of development, next season could be big. But only once this one comes to a merciful close.

Notes: Boise State’s tournament game will stream on WatchStadium.com and air on the radio on 670 AM. ... For the first time in their careers, Jessup and Derrick Alston were chosen for the All-Mountain West Team in a vote of the league’s 11 coaches. Jessup, a junior guard from Longmont, Colorado, landed on the third team after averaging 15.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 18 league games. Alston, a redshirt sophomore guard from Houston, was an honorable-mention pick. After averaging just 0.6 points per game a year ago, the 6-foot-8 wing is scoring at a clip of 13.0 ppg this season. The 12.4 ppg increase is on track to be the largest jump in program history. Alston has been the top scorer for the Broncos in conference play, averaging 16.0 ppg, which puts him 10th in the Mountain West. ... Utah State junior guard Sam Merrill was voted the conference’s player of the year. For a complete list of awards, visit TheMW.com.

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Dave Southorn is a 2004 graduate from the University of Colorado. He has covered Boise State athletics since 2005, and worked at the Idaho Statesman since 2013. He’s won multiple Idaho Press Club awards and once won a contest designing a play for the Seattle Seahawks.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.

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