Mountain West Tournament Preview: Boise State
Can the Broncos find a way to crash the Big Dance?
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It’s March. This time of year, anything is possible.
Then why not entertain the thought of the Mountain West’s #5 seed navigating unfamiliar territory, slaying a giant, and picking up an automatic NCAA tournament bid along the way?
It will take an enormous amount of luck…but it’s not impossible.
Boise State was hovering around second place for much of this season, but the Broncos faltered, losing three of six down the stretch. The most recent of those losses came in Boise State’s regular season finale against UNLV—and the two teams clash again on Wednesday.
Given how well Leon Rice’s team was competing throughout the year, their fifth-place finish could seem like something of a disappointment. But this is precisely where the team was pegged to finish in the preseason poll. The much worse luck is that it was the hosts that made the final push into the #4 spot in the tournament.
Had Boise State drawn Colorado State or Nevada in that spot, they would have at least been playing a neutral site game. But when the Broncos go toe-to-toe with UNLV, they’ll be doing in front of a home crowd that might have some extra interest in the surging Rebels.
So, as the Broncos head to Vegas, the odds are stacked against them. But this team has done the impossible before. And as I said in the beginning—anything can happen in March.
Here’s an honest look at what it will take for Boise State to hoist the Mountain West Tournament trophy at the end of the week. Let’s start with their first matchup against UNLV.
Though the Rebels are celebrating the more recent victory in the series, Boise State beat UNLV by seven back in January. It was TJ Otzelberger’s first loss in the Mountain West, but it came on the Broncos’ home turf at ExtraMile Arena. When the two teams met last week at the Thomas & Mack Center, the house won.
It will be deja vu all over again for these squads as they tangle once again on Wednesday night. In order to avoid repeating recent history, Boise State will need to snap out of the daze that cost them a shot at getting on the better side of the bracket. That means they need to play better defense on the Rebels’ top scorers, Bryce Hamilton and Amauri Hardy.
In the team’s first meeting, Hamilton went off for 19 points, but Hardy struggled with his shot all game, going 3-for-13—though he did manage to hit double figures with ten points. The Broncos need to put that same kind of pressure on Hardy and try to get him to force bad shots.
It should be noted that UNLV grad transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long was not available for the loss to the Broncos, as he was sitting out with an injury. The elder statesmen scored 16 points last week against Boise State. His return, coupled with Hamilton’s rise, are a big reason why UNLV is riding a five-game winning streak into the Mountain West Tournament.
Still, this team is by no means unbeatable. If Derrick Alston plays up to his potential, and the team is shooting at a reasonable clip, Boise State should be able to keep this game close. They just need the streaking Rebels to hit a speedbump.
As it stands, UNLV might have more momentum than any other team in the Mountain West right now, and they certainly have the home court advantage over everybody. On paper, it makes much more sense that the Rebels would be the ones to pull off the unthinkable and steal an NCAA Tournament bid.
But wouldn’t that just make too much sense? Doesn’t the ecstasy of defeating the nation’s last undefeated team also invite the accomanying agony of an early exit? Hasn’t college basketball taught us that much by now?
In what will be a recurring theme in this piece, Boise State is going to need to get lucky to slide past these red-hot Runnin’ Rebels. And if they do? Their reward will almost assuredly be facing the league’s best team—San Diego State.
SEMIFINAL: SAN DIEGO STATE
It would be tempting to just forecast the Aztecs being upset by Fresno State or Air Force, but that’s not quite in keeping with our “realistic” theme. There’s virtually no getting around it—Boise State is going to have to knock off the top dogs.
For all of the hype surrounding this San Diego State team—and it is well-deserved hype, to be sure—the Aztecs have looked vulnerable at times this season. Remember their near-death experience against San Jose State a few months ago? It took a Malachi Flynn buzzer-beater to save SDSU that day. They have trailed in many of their games, including going into halftime with a deficit on a few occasions.
These Aztecs are built for the big moment, though. They’ve cruised through their biggest tests, and only stumbled when they took their eyes off the ball for a split second.
The Broncos might need to bank on San Diego State looking past them and toward the Mountain West Championship game. If they can catch the Aztecs off guard and come out swinging with a barrage of three-pointers, Boise State might just be able to knock SDSU off their rhythm.
Even if they do jump out to an early lead, they’ll likely need to fend off a massive comeback, something for which the Aztecs have shown an aptitude. The Broncos haven’t always been the most poised team down the stretch, but this veteran team is capable of reaching down for an extra gear. They can also rely on the nation’s best free throw shooter, Jessup, to keep SDSU at bay.
There’s neraly no chance that the Broncos are just going to walk over San Diego State. They’ll need to start fast and hang on—but if they can catch the Aztecs looking ahead to Sunday, they just might be able to pull off the massive upset.
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: NEVADA
This is both a realistic opponent and probably the best-case scenario for Boise State, given what else is on the other side of the bracket. The Wolf Pack have come together very nicely this season behind one of the breakout players in the country, Jalen Harris. The transfer was always a prolific scorer, but he has taken his game to new heights in Reno.
That said, the Broncos can absolutely compete with the offensive firepower of the Wolf Pack, especially if Justinian Jessup is riding a hot hand throught the tournament. Derrick Alston can carry this team only so far, so he will need his supporting cast to step up. That means Jessup and Abu Kigab will need to turn in good scoring performances. Leon Rice will also need his bench, led by senior Alex Hobbs, to rise to the occasion.
Nevada has a size advantage in the frontcourt, but their big men aren’t quite at the same caliber as the rest of the top teams in the league. Steve Alford doesn’t have a Neemias Queta or a Nico Carvacho or a Yanni Wetzell or even a Nate Grimes. The Wolf Pack’s big duo of KJ Hymes and Johncarlos Reyes have shown flashes, but they are the clear weak link on this team.
For those reasons, RJ Williams might become the most important player in this game. Despite standing at just 6’7”, Williams has been one of the best rebounders in the country. There were some questions surrounding Boise State’s size disadvantage, especially after center Mikey Frazier left the team just prior to the season. If he is able to stay out of foul trouble, he could neutralize Nevada’s size difference on the interior and force Nevada to rely on its three-point shooting.
On most nights, that’s no problem for the Wolf Pack. They are one the country’s ten best teams when it comes to launching the long ball. So, just like every Cinderella story, Boise State is going to need some good fortune to see them through.
With just enough of that fortune, this team will be cutting down the nets in Vegas. And what better place to make a call to Lady Luck?
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Taken in whole, this scenario seems far-fetched, of course. It’s just as likely, if not more so, that the Broncos will fall in a veritable road game in their first game. In that case, they’ll probably end up heading to the NIT or CBI, which is still a far sight better than where they ended up last year—at home, with a losing record.
Still, with this group of veterans playing for one last shot at the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard to count Boise State out completely.
After all, it is March.
Andrew is a current USBWA member, covering college basketball for multiple outlets, including Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Busting Brackets of the FanSided Network. He also runs the Dieckhoff Power Index, a college basketball analytics system, and provides bracketology predictions throughout the season.