Boise State Basketball Season Preview: High Expectations
Can Derrick Alston Jr. lead this group of highly anticipated transfers to the top of the Mountain West?
The Bronco’s roster has been assembled for a championship run in 2020-2021, can Leon Rice put all of the pieces together to get them there?
Anticipation is a good word to describe how folks around not only the conference, but around the entire country feel about the Bronco’s roster for the upcoming season. As Boise State welcomes back, leading scorer and 2nd team all-mountain west selection Derrick Alston Jr., who spurned the professional route this offseason to lead one possibly Leon Rice’s most talented roster ever to the NCAA tournament.
Unfinished Business pic.twitter.com/vwapPlXpa0
— Derrick Alston Jr. (@deejuusz) July 8, 2020
Where other programs around the Mountain West have experienced coaching changes galore, Boise State is the only team in the conference to have the same head coach for the past ten seasons in a row. While during that same time, eight other programs have had at least three different head coaches, and UNLV reaching a conference high of five during that same time (if you count interims).
Head Coach Leon Rice is now the most tenured head coach in the conference by a long shot, at least in terms of years spent in the Mountain West.
Still, during that time he has amassed eight 20-win seasons and two of the Bronco’s three NCAA tournament appearances this century since taking over. He has had plenty of success, and no knock on any of the talented players that have come through the Taco Bell Arena (had to do it for nostalgia purposes), but this may be Rice’s most talented squad yet.
Last season Boise State was fighting for a top-5 finish with a pretty shallow roster, this was by design. Even though head coach Leon Rice had five scholarships essentially on pause at various times of the year. In reality used by incoming transfers sitting on the bench unable to play due to NCAA transfer rules, the Broncos still competed.
With a short bench, Boise State used ten different starting lineups while mostly utilizing around nine players. Still, their best stepped up, finishing 20-12 overall and 11-7 in conference play. In a year full of ties within the conference standings, the Broncos finished 5th, tied with Colorado State who both narrowly missed out on a three-way tie for 2nd.
That finish was mostly achieved on the back Boise State’s workhorses. Justinian Jessup and Derrick Alston Jr. both played in all thirty-two games for this squad last season, with Jessup starting all thirty-two of them, averaging a conference leading 36.0 MPG and becoming the conference’s all-time three point shooter (325 made) in the process.
R.J. Williams is another player equally responsible for the team’s success last year. Posting a near double-double, while also leading the conference in 2-point FG% (63.1%) and total rebound percentage (23.2%) per sports reference. But his true potential during his senior season may have been hindered by his time playing out of position. Tasked with playing as a five many times during the year, having to provide most if not all of the team’s interior defense took a toll on his playing time (just 23.0 MPG). Recording a team-high 2.9 fouls per game, saw him sent to the bench early on in games to portion out his playing time down the stretch.
Now, Jessup and Williams are gone along with a handful of other productive seniors from the rotation. Leaving Alston Jr. (17.3 PPG) and Abu Kigab (11.1 PPG) as the top two returning scorers to lead a highly anticipated roster full of potential.
Along with Kigab, who fans in Boise will get for a full season this time around. The roster is full of potential, from high-major transfers all the way down the walk-on’s, there is plenty opportunity for guys to contribute at some point down the road. Even though there are questions surrounding how this combination of transfers and division-I newcomers will come together to form a top-three squad. We are all too familiar with how (insert Eric Musselman/Nevada praise here) creating a melting pot of transfers can pay off big if done right.
Bench: Emmanuel Akot (6-8, R-Jr.), Naje Smith (6-7, Jr.), Max Rice (6-5, R-So.), KaSean Pryor (6-9, Fr.), Lukas Milner (6-10, Jr.), Burke Smith (6-11, Fr.), Pavle Kuzmanovic (6-5, Fr.), Devonaire Doutrive (6-5, Jr.)*, Donovan Ivory**
* Awaiting word on Doutrive’s transfer waiver
** Ivory is eligible at the conclusion of the Fall 2020 semester
The Bronco’s biggest strength aside from all-conference returnee Derrick Alston Jr., is the well roundedness and depth of this year’s roster compared to that of 2019-2020. Now depth, may be the wrong word here, because there are several players who have yet to log a minute at the division-I level. But after competing with such a shallow depth chart last season, I can see
Where Boise State may benefit from this depth the most is getting Alston Jr. back to his rightful role as a scorer rather than creator. Like Williams Alston Jr.’s efficiency suffered last year due to his alternative role. Even though he saw increases in nearly every major category last year, he also more than doubled his turnovers per game and saw his FG% drop significantly.
To get him back to his natural role, look no further than returning sophomore RayJ Dennis and Marcus Shaver Jr., who should anchor the backcourt for the Bronco’s this season. Shaver Jr. like Alston wasn’t playing at an optimum efficiency at his previous stop, while with the Portland Pilots he was able to log 14.8 PPG as the team’s leading scorer, but posted 2.2 APG to go along with 2.2 turnovers per game.
Now Shaver Jr. won’t be relied upon to perform all of the point guard duties with Dennis around, as the true freshman entered the starting lineup last year on January 8th against the Runnin’ Rebels and never looked back. His growth as a playmaker was key to the team’s top-half finish and he returns this year to take the ball out of Alton Jr.’s hands until the moment he needs to score.
The roster is comprised of several high major and impact mid-major transfers throughout. But the concern for many folks betting against the Broncos this season, is the unproven past of several players expected to make a key contributions after sit-out years.
The biggest weakness for this Bronco’s club really just happens to be the unknowns, as players like Emmanuel Akot (former 5-star recruit at Arizona) and Devonaire Doutrive (former top-100 recruit at Arizona) come with a high recruiting pedigree but weren’t key players at their last stop in Tucson. Or take Shaver Jr. for example who is clearly a talented player, but was the best player on a really bad Portland team (7-25, 0-16 10th in WCC in 18-19)
Something to note before we adhere to that critique of the Bronco’s amount of “ineffective” newbies, freshmen and Juco transfers to the roster is the fact that all of these players, except for maybe Juco transfers Naje Smith and Lukas Milner and freshmen trio KaSean Pryor, Burke Smith and Pavle Kuzmanovic, all have been a part of the program anywhere from winter break to a full season.
And you can bet that Rice and his staff have continued their development magic that turned Derrick Alston Jr. from a seldom used walk-on to a NBA draft prospect, with this new crop of players.
Bottom line, things will look different around college basketball this season, and the Broncos will put a very different line up on the court, but the goals are still the same.
Folks on the inside and outside of the program expect a lot from Boise State this season. Although some still see San Diego State as the leader and Colorado State, UNLV and Utah State as more credible threats in the top-half of the conference.
With so many “unknown” players suiting up this year, the Broncos are just going to have to lace up their sneakers and wait for tip-off to prove the naysayers wrong.
The ceiling for this team is really a conference championship and making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. Worse-case scenario looks to be somewhere in the conference’s top-5 or maybe falling to somewhere in the middle of the pack. But with the team that’s been assembled by Leon Rice, and his proven track record, anything less than say a top-2 finish may be considered a failure.