Elite Defense Has Propelled Boise State to Peak of Mountain West

Elite Defense Has Propelled Boise State to Peak of Mountain West

Boise State

Elite Defense Has Propelled Boise State to Peak of Mountain West

Broncos Have Excelled Defensively In Season’s First Half


Led by its pesky defense, Boise State has become a major threat in the Mountain West


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Boise State takes on San Diego State in Taco Bell Arena on Saturday

Since Leon Rice’s arrival to Boise back in 2010, Boise State has commonly received notoriety for its electric offense and scoring efficiency.

This season, it’s the Bronco defense that has been the team’s calling card.

Boise State holds a 14-3 win-loss record – the best 17-game start since 2013 – while maintaining sole possession of second place in the Mountain West. None of that should be a surprise to college basketball followers: Boise State has won 20 or more games each of the last five seasons, finishing third or higher in the MWC three times over the same span.

What’s unusual about this year’s team, though, is its defense, which leads the Mountain West in adjusted efficiency for the first time ever. Boise State yields just 0.936 points per possession, which ranks 15th nationally, according to KenPom.com. Prior to this season, a Leon Rice team had appeared in the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency just once.

Rice’s Broncos will battle San Diego State on Saturday night in a packed Taco Bell Arena, a matchup between two elite defenses. Televised nationally on ESPN2, it’s one of just four matchups Saturday that features two teams ranked in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

It’s been a long time coming for Rice on the defensive side of the court. After struggling for years to compete with the Mountain West’s top teams defensively, 2018 has been a breakout season for the Broncos. San Diego State – one of just a handful of teams to be ranked in the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency each of the last seven years – no longer leads the Mountain West in points allowed per possession. That distinction now belongs to Boise State. The graph below shows both programs’ national defensive efficiency rankings over the last eight seasons (a smaller number is better).

Since 2013, BSU and SDSU have recorded a combined 126-59 conference win-loss record, a win percentage of 0.676. Not once, though, has Boise State had the defense to match San Diego State. Over the same span, San Diego State has beaten Boise State in six of their 11 matchups, while the average score of those 11 games has been 64.6-63.7. Don’t expect Saturday night’s matchup to be any different.

Unlike most elite defenses, Boise State does not rely on steals or blocked shots to make defensive stops. In fact, the Broncos are just one of 18 teams nationally to rank 290th or worse in both steal percentage and block percentage. The other 17 teams, though, possess an average defensive efficiency ranking of 243rd. Boise State is 15th.

The Broncos are focused on contesting every shot and grabbing every possible rebound. Most highly-efficient defenses use turnovers for the bulk of their forced empty possessions, but Boise State is content to play either man or zone defense and maintain its defensive fundamentals. The Broncos have commonly used a switch-heavy defense, meaning defenders interchange their defensive assignments due to their position on the floor, to avoid cuts or screens leading to open looks. Leon Rice’s team also has a tough zone defense in addition to its man defense, which is successful because the Broncos rank in the top five in opponent three-point percentage and lead the country in defensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom. Teams that struggle to rebound or defend the perimeter are typically easy to score against in a 2-3 zone, but it’s not the case for this year’s Boise State squad.

Boise State took on UNLV in the Rebels’ conference opener on December 30, a game in which BSU forced UNLV to its second-lowest points per possession output of the season (0.96). A little past midway in the first half, with UNLV up 24-22, the Rebels were inbounding the ball after a Boise State turnover.

“Are they in zone?” UNLV’s Marvin Menzies asked the Rebels bench.

Menzies took a few steps towards center court, presumably to get a better look at the Bronco defense.

“They’re in man, right? Yeah,” the UNLV head coach confirmed to his bench.

But because of Boise State’s defensive mixture of man-switching and zone, it misled the UNLV coaching staff. The Broncos had alternated between straight-up man, man-switching, and a 2-3 zone in the game’s first 12 minutes.

“They’re in man…no?” said Menzies as Jovan Mooring trotted across half court with the inbounds pass.

Moments later, Boise State big man Robin Jorch spiked a driving attempt by Shakur Juiston. Lexus Williams picked up the loose ball before flinging it to Chandler Hutchison, who flushed an uncontested right-handed jam. Hutchison quickly turned and reversed course to reset the BSU 2-3 zone once more.

It was a textbook example of defense leading to easy points – the reason why Boise State has become the Mountain West’s most dangerous team.

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