Boise State’s Struggles Not Doing Mountain West Any FavorsPosted by Bennet Hayes on February 3rd, 2014
Derrick Marks couldn’t move. The UNLV celebration had begun and handshake lines were forming around him, but Marks remained motionless, eyes staring blankly ahead. Losing 11-point leads in the final three and a half minutes of a basketball game will induce a little shock sometimes, but a glance at the paralyzed Marks made it clear that that this loss ran even deeper than that. Boise State had provided a 36-minute demonstration of why it had been picked second in the MW preseason poll. The Broncos looked like the NCAA Tournament team everyone had expected at the start of the year, and Marks was at the center of it all. He scored 22 points in every which way -– step-back jumpers, mid-range leaners, acrobatic layups — giving his team firm control of the second-half flow of play. But just as Boise appeared to be assuming a handle on both game and season, that fateful closing run of the Rebels (17-2 in its totality) completely ripped away any grip they may have found. Marks’ may still be processing the Broncos’ new reality, but the jarring loss landed his team further away than ever before from their second consecutive NCAA appearance. The Boise plight may also be a Mountain West plight, as the conference is looking more and more like a two-bid league, just a season after proudly sending five teams to the Big Dance.
This season was supposed to go differently for Leon Rice’s team. Expectations are bound to be elevated when you return your top six players from an NCAA Tournament team, and the Broncos have been unable to keep pace with the increased hype. Aside from a home win over a surprisingly solid Utah team, Boise’s most impressive result came in a road victory over #111 (KenPom) Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic. They have taken care of business against inferior opponents (14-0 vs teams outside the top 100), but Saturday’s loss dropped the Broncos to just 1-7 against teams inside the top 100. That scar will need to be touched up in the coming weeks if Boise wants at-large hope on Selection Sunday, but don’t take that ugly record at face value. Four of those losses came by four points or less (including last night), and all but one, a 15-point loss at Kentucky, came by single digits. Most every major team statistical category is within range of where it was a year ago, and the defense actually looks marginally improved. The Broncos are clearly not leaps and bounds ahead of where they were a season ago, but contrary to what the record might indicate, they don’t actually appear to be any worse.
Mountain West fans should hope Boise has some gas left in the tank, because it still represents the conference’s best hope for earning a third bid to the Big Dance. San Diego State will be in the field with a high seed, and New Mexico seems likely to join them, but barring anything miraculous out of Nevada or Wyoming (running the table kind of miraculous), UNLV and Boise are the only other MW teams with any chance of getting there. For both teams, the ticket to dance will be claimed by knocking off San Diego State, New Mexico or both (Boise and UNLV have each of those teams still remaining on the home schedule), but Saturday’s frantic final-minutes flurry notwithstanding, Boise State feels like the team most capable of getting the job done. Their day(s) of reckoning arrive soon: San Diego State visits Taco Bell Arena on Wednesday; New Mexico one week later.
But whether the Mountain West gets two or three bids to the Tournament, the ultimate test of the league will come after the bracket has been set. For all the successes of the conference a season ago, no MW team was able to reach the Sweet Sixteen. And then there’s the fact that San Diego State’s 2011 team is the only conference squad to reach the regional semifinals in the last six years. Needless to say, the conference’s solid national reputation has somehow outrun its tourney performance in recent years. Steve Fisher’s current team will have the opportunity to replicate the success of that 2011 club, but which conference mates will join them in the pursuit? Three months ago, Boise State seemed like a safe answer. For 36 minutes on Saturday night, they again felt like a comfortable guess. There is still time and opportunity for the Broncos to make us believe again, but three wild minutes in Vegas could have changed everything about Boise State’s season. Don’t believe me? Just ask Derrick Marks.