Boise State always found itself chasing San Diego State, frustrated by close losses, seeking to reach the top of Mountain West basketball.
In a year, the Broncos have transitioned from hunters to the hunted.
A sweep last season of the Aztecs, a regular-season conference crown and wins in 18-of-19 Mountain West regular-season games going into Saturday’s battle for first place will do that.
“We’ve got a big target on our back. This game’s huge for the community, and for the league, too,” senior guard Mikey Thompson said. “Even a team like San Diego State’s coming for us, we’re undefeated in the Mountain West. We have a 10-game winning streak.”
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As Boise State looks to make it 11 straight, which would set a school record, coach Leon Rice credits his team for keeping a similar mentality from last season and even as it began its current streak after a 3-4 start this year.
“There’s a different way you have to approach things. It’s a lot easier to be the hunter than the hunted, but when you get to that level, you still have to be the hunter,” Rice said. “... The moment you drop your gloves, you’re going to get knocked out.”
Both teams went 14-4 in league play last season, so under Mountain West rules, it’s considered a co-championship despite the Broncos’ wins in both meetings. As the Broncos have become a team on the Aztecs’ level, one that teams are chasing and one that is a mark for potential revenge, they’ve been prepared, thanks to a veteran roster and a staff that is hyper-focused.
“They’re always going to be right up there, but we want to take over,” junior forward Nick Duncan said. “You look at what we did last year, we know teams are coming for us, but we have guys who are ready for it.”
The next goal for the program: Match San Diego State’s six straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
“You look at the last 18, 19 games we’ve played in conference, I think we’ve had a good level of consistency,” Rice said. “That’s what you’re shooting for, but I think there’s a difference in doing it year in, year out.”
KEEP ON STREAKING
As they ride their 10-game win streak, tied for second-best in the nation, the Broncos have done it with more than offense.
They made 18-of-24 free throws in the second half Wednesday against Nevada, four days after making just 15-of-27 in the second half against Fresno State. In both games combined, the Broncos made three of their last 17 field goals.
On Jan. 5 at Utah State, they had two turnovers in the last 18:52 and won by 15, despite a scoreless night from senior guard/forward Anthony Drmic. Duncan had 15 points in that game, but zero himself three days earlier against Colorado State.
Seeing how Boise State will try to win Saturday is intriguing, especially against a San Diego State team that has won a mind-boggling 155 straight games when leading with 5 minutes to play.
“Winning teams find ways to win, and losing teams find ways to lose,” Rice said. “The history of their program, they’ve got a winning team, and I think we’ve got that, too. That’s why it makes for such an interesting clash.”
APPROACHING A SELLOUT
Boise State reported 10,100 tickets out as of Friday afternoon. Taco Bell Arena’s listed capacity is 12,480. The building has seen 44 basketball crowds of 10,000 more, in which the Broncos are 32-12, including a 7-1 mark under Rice.
Two of the Broncos’ past three games against the Aztecs have drawn 10,455 and 10,511.
“It helps to have that kind of atmosphere. This place is just getting better and better,” Rice said. “It really helps when you get 12,000 in there. ... When you have a home-court advantage like that, it really helps your team.”
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE AZTECS
As usual, San Diego State had a challenging nonconference slate, losing to ranked foes Kansas, Utah and West Virginia, but beating then-No. 13 California. Losses to Little Rock, Grand Canyon and San Diego were shockers as the team had some brutal offensive showings.
Freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley leads the team with 13.6 points per game, while senior Winston Shepard averages 10.3 ppg and 5.6 rpg. The Aztecs are shooting 31 percent from 3-point range (93-of-300), but opponents are just 36.6 percent from the field. The 60.5 ppg they allow is No. 7 in the nation.
“What they hang their hat on is their defense and rebounding. That’s why they’re so consistent. That’s why they go on the road and win year in and year out,” Rice said.
The Aztecs are plus-5.1 rebounds per game overall and tied with the Broncos for No. 1 in the league at plus-9.2 in Mountain West contests. Boise State had a 42-30 rebounding edge in its Feb. 28, 2015, win at Viejas Arena.
“Last year, they kind of whooped us on the boards,” Shepard said.
Rice said of his team’s rebounding this season: “I’d give it a ‘good.’ I don’t know if we’re great. It’s like this team (as a whole) a little bit, where we’re great in stretches of things, we’ve been great for 30 minutes and just OK for 10.”
RICE LIKES DRAFT CHANGES
Boise State has never had a player leave early for the NBA Draft. It could happen after this season with junior forward James Webb III, who has won three of the past four Mountain West player of the week honors.
Webb is a potential draft pick should he declare. On Wednesday, the NCAA approved rules allowing players to put their names in for the draft, then remove them as late as May after the NBA combine and one team workout.
“Common sense tells us it’s what we need to do, and anytime a rule’s made for that, to help a student-athlete, I’m a huge supporter of it. I think it’s really going to benefit a lot of kids,” Rice said.
San Diego State (11-6, 4-0 MW) at BSU (13-4, 4-0)
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Taco Bell Arena
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: 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; 10,100 distributed as of Friday afternoon