Boise State’s Big Win Proves This Team Is Different

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 3rd, 2015

It’s Saturday night, 30 minutes after Boise State put the finishing touches on a road win at San Diego State, breaking the Aztecs’ 29-game home winning streak. Broncos’ head coach Leon Rice is in the tunnel at Viejas Arena talking about his team’s accomplishments for the day, the month, the season. And he’s looking around at the empty red seats in Viejas, his face a mixture of amazement and accomplishment. “My guys are deserving of respect,” said Rice. “They’ve won, what, 12 of their last 13 games now? In this league, that’s tough to do because of the places you have to go. Nobody beats these guys [San Diego State] here. What was it, 29 games in a row here? I mean, nobody wins here.”

Derrick Marks and Kevin Allen Celebrate The Broncos Win At San Diego State (Lenny Ignelzi, AP Photo)

Derrick Marks and Kevin Allen Celebrate The Broncos Win At San Diego State (Lenny Ignelzi, AP Photo)

And yet, that’s exactly what the Broncos did, even after getting off to a dreadfully slow start, scoring just eight points on their first 19 possessions (13:30 game time). Part of the slow start could certainly be chalked up to the length, athleticism, activity and intelligence of the San Diego State defense, but you can bet the intimidation factor in playing in Viejas was also a part of it. After a pregame routine featuring The Show professing its belief that its team would win; after lineup introductions that would make many NBA teams blush; after the Aztecs came out with the swagger of having played in and won countless meaningful Mountain West games in this very venue; a little nervousness was expected, especially for a team without that same prior history of success. But this Broncos team has proven themselves to be very different from their predecessors. “It’s funny, this is a team of new accomplishments,” Rice bragged, while making sure to give full credit to his players and his staff. “I mean, before this year, we’d never won at New Mexico; we’d never won at Utah State. We’d never won here. And I know how tough this place is. We have a ton of respect for this team and these fans. I mean, I come out before the game and get goosebumps looking around this place. For me to come in here and see this place and see what Coach Fisher has done here, it’s pretty fantastic. And we have so much respect for San Diego State, the win here means a lot to us.”

In the grand scheme of things, this is a win that will pay dividends beyond this year, proof that Boise State has earned its spot at the grown-up’s table in the Mountain West. But in the short term, it means that if the Broncos can win at San Jose State on Wednesday and then at home on Saturday against Fresno State, they’ll win the conference title and the top seed in next week’s conference tournament. For a team firmly on the bubble (and often regarded as being on the wrong side of that bubble), this was very likely the win that will seal their date to the Big Dance. Remember, this is a team that took a big hit around New Year’s, when the team’s leading returning scorer Anthony Drmic was deemed out for the year, and combined a neutral-site loss to Loyola-Chicago with three straight losses to form a four-game losing streak that gave plenty of reason to write this team off. But this isn’t the same Boise State team we’ve seen under Leon Rice. The Broncos have won at least 20 games in four of his five years as head coach, but this year’s squad is different in many ways, differences that have become apparent over the past two months.

In Leon Rice's Fifth Year, Boise State Is Doing Things It Has Never Done Before (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In Leon Rice’s Fifth Year, Boise State Is Doing Things It Has Never Done Before (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Historically, Rice’s squads at Boise have been significantly better on the offensive end than the defensive one. The Broncos have never been better than 113th in the nation in defensive efficiency on his watch, and even as late as mid-January this season, it looked like this was just more of the same as the Broncos gave up 71 points on 62 possessions to Colorado State and 65 points on 56 possessions to Wyoming. Since then? Boise State has ramped up the energy on the defensive end and is the second-most efficient defensive team in league games, behind only those Aztecs. “We’re still built on our offense, but the point we’ve made to our guys is that the best defense in the league wins this league over and over again,” said Rice. “You can have a good offensive team, but you’re not going to win the league or compete for a championship if we can’t be a great defensive team.”

Credit can be spread out up and down the roster and around the staff, especially assistant coach Danny Henderson, who is the team’s defensive guru. But a big key has been the emergence of sophomore forward James Webb III. Webb is 6’9”, long and bouncy, the type of athlete who, when we see them around the Mountain West, is usually wearing a San Diego State jersey. Aside from all the great things he does offensively (he’s among the top 10 in the nation in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, and 13th in the nation in offensive efficiency), Webb has been a difference-maker on the defensive end. He’s very capable of sitting on the block and banging with centers and power forwards around the conference, but what makes him special is his ability to also wreak havoc on the perimeter. When the Broncos shift to a zone, Webb is at the top of it, stepping into passing lanes and using his length to fluster opposing guards, a role he relishes. “It is pretty fun,” Webb said after the game. “I get a couple steals here and there. But really, it speeds teams up, and we can get some steals and get out in transition.”

James Webb's Length And Athleticism Give Boise A Look They've Never Had Before (Brian Losness, USA Today)

James Webb’s Length And Athleticism Give Boise A Look They’ve Never Had Before (Brian Losness, USA Today)

Aside from those occasional steals, the other essential thing Webb does for his team is to end defensive possessions by ripping down boards. He’s ranks 17th in the nation in defensive rebounding, personally grabbing more than a quarter of all the opponents’ missed shots. He’s not the offensive rebounder Ryan Watkins was last year for this team, but the end result is that a team that probably isn’t as offensively talented as last year’s bunch is roughly as efficient as they were a season ago. Webb’s emergence has been stunning, considering he only played a total of 13 minutes in the team’s first five games. But after going for 12 points in 14 minutes against North Carolina State in the team’s sixth game and proving himself the athletic equal to ACC-caliber opponents, he’s never played fewer than 20 minutes in a game since then. “The coaches just gave me simple things to do,” said Webb, explaining how he earned his role. “I just emphasized those things: rebound the ball, knock down open shots when I have them, and just know my role.”

While Webb’s explosion from afterthought on the roster to a guy with legitimate NBA prospects is impressive, the fact that I’ve made it more than 1,200 words talking about Boise State without mentioning the two words “Derrick” and “Marks” is a testament to the talent that this team contains. Marks is going to run away with the Mountain West Player of the Year award this season, and deservedly so. He was fine last year. He averaged 14.9 points per game and was almost always the Bronco with the ball in his hands down the stretch. But he was also a guy who had an offensive rating just barely over 100.0 and who shot just 28 percent on the roughly two three-pointers per game he attempted. This year, he’s extended his favored mid-range jumper out a couple steps and is knocking in a sterling 47.7 percent of his 120 three-point attempts this year. “Well, this summer I had a knee injury,” said Marks, explaining his game’s evolution. “So I just watched a lot of film, I watched what other guys did and what works for them. And I worked on my shot and my basketball IQ, and it has paid off a lot.” This year, he’s got the full package, knocking in step-back threes, backing smaller guys down into the post, and getting to the rim with a quick first step. And while he’s a shooter first and foremost, he has the requisite strength and athleticism to throw one down in traffic from time to time.


But let’s talk about that basketball IQ thing that he mentioned. Last year, it seemed like almost every time I wrote about Derrick Marks and the Broncos, I ripped him and his head coach for questionable endgame decisions. This year? He’s turned into one of my favorite players in the nation, always making the smart play, trusting his teammates as much as his own spectacular shot-making, and developing into a rock-solid senior. “He’s been a phenomenal leader,” said Rice about his coach on the floor. “He’s just evolved as a player, matured as a player.” The same sentiment can be adapted for Rice. It takes some time for coaches to grow into their jobs. Just like players can get better; just like referees can get better; just like some guy sitting at a desk 40 hours a week can get better; coaches too can improve. And without a doubt, Rice has gotten better at his job over the course of this season, and in the process, helped Marks get the most out of his game.

But here’s the really fun thing for fans of the Broncos: this shouldn’t be a flash in the pan. Barring Webb making a decision to rush his professional career, Boise State should feature he and Drmic as the two-headed monster leading this squad in 2015-16. Maybe Mikey Thompson will put all of his obvious but inconsistent talents together in his senior season. Guys like Rob Heyer, Nick Duncan and Montigo Alford have proven to be solid role players. Little-used Kevin Allen came off the pine against San Diego State for a few minutes and made a big contribution. And then there’s freshman Chandler Hutchison, the highest-rated recruit in Boise State basketball history. His freshman campaign has been underwhelming, but after an offseason in the program, he’s due for significant improvement. The Broncos have great facilities, the benefit of good football money and a proven brand. This year’s success could go a long way towards bumping up the momentum they’ve built up. The future is bright in Boise.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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