The Boise State men’s basketball team just completed its best season in program history, winning both the Mountain West regular season and tournament championships and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. The Broncos won a program-record 27 games, finishing with a 24-4 stretch after a 3-4 start.
And the Broncos have a chance to be just as good – if not better – next season.
Boise State loses its best and most impactful player in leading scorer Abu Kigab, who was the heart and soul of the Broncos magical run down the stretch. The Oregon transfer averaged 14.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while starting all 35 games and will be a huge, impossible piece to fully replace.
But everybody else on the team could be back. The Broncos have a chance to bring back four starters and its entire bench – if they all choose to do so. And that’s a big if.
Much of the outlook on next year depends on the decisions of three starters – Marcus Shaver Jr., Mladen Armus and Emmanuel Akot. All three seniors still have one year of eligibility left due to the NCAA granting an extra year for the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the 2020-21 season.
If all three elect to run it back again with Mountain West Freshman of the Year Tyson Degenhart and key bench pieces Max Rice, Lukas Milner and Naje Smith, the Broncos should make another run at a Mountain West championship. Redshirt RJ Keene appears ready to contribute as well.
And that’s not even counting the expected addition of 6-foot-9 forward Sadraque Nganga, a four-star, top-100 prospect that verbally committed to the Broncos in February over offers from Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA among others.
Boise State would be one of the oldest teams in the country if all three come back with three sixth-year seniors in the starting lineup. If this year’s group was veteran, next year’s group would be even more experienced and seasoned. As the Broncos showed this season, experience and veteran leadership is a huge plus.
But if Shaver Jr., Armus and Akot all elect to leave the Broncos and start their professional careers, the picture would change in a big way. Sure the Broncos would probably hit the transfer portal to try and find impactful talent, but it’s hard to see the Broncos – at least right now – being close to as good as this year’s team if any of the three decide to leave.
Milner is a solid contributor off the bench who appears to have his best basketball ahead of him, but is he ready to start and play 30 minutes for the Broncos at center? Is Keene ready to step into a starting spot as a freshman if Shaver Jr. or Akot leave? Rice overcame a rough start and finished strong, but are the Broncos a better team with him starting as opposed to playing 20 minutes off the bench? There’s no doubt the Broncos would be better if the three return. Whether they will is a completely different question.
With that all said, here’s a brief look at all three and their pending decisions:
MARCUS SHAVER JR.: Shaver finished second on the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game and hit a team-high 57 three-pointers. He played a team-high 33.1 minutes per game while starting 34 of 35 games last season. He was dubbed ‘big shot Shaver’ midway through the season after hitting four 3-pointers in the final minute to either tie the game or give the Broncos the lead, including two in less than 48 hours to win at Utah State and San Diego State. But he battled sickness and injury down the stretch and went just 7 for 39 from the field (17.9 percent) in the four postseason games, including just 1-for-14 from 3-point rage. In the loss to Memphis in the NCAA Tournament he went 1 for 10 from the field and had four points. Shaver’s mom moved to Boise and attended almost every game last season. Coming back for another season would seem to make the most sense, given his family’s ability to watch him regularly and the chance for him to finish on a better note. But he likely will have a nice pro career overseas whenever he’s ready, and he might decide that time is now. He appears to be the most likely of the three to return.
MLADEN ARMUS: The Serbian big man led the Broncos with 8.0 rebounds per game and also added 7.1 points per game. Rebounding and defense were his two main contributions, and both were vital to Boise State’s success. He limited Wyoming’s Graham Ike in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament, and held San Diego State big man Nathan Mensah to four points in the title game. Armus had 11 games with at least 10 rebounds this season and finished as the top offensive rebounder in the Mountain West with 111 – an average of more than three per game. The 6-10 center had some amazing games including a 22-point, 19-rebound game at Utah State and a 16-point, 13-rebound game against Wyoming in the conference tournament. He also had two games with at least 10 offensive rebounds. But he also had too many games where he was a non-factor. He had no points and two rebounds at Fresno State, no points and four rebounds against Tulsa and five points and four rebounds against Air Force to name a few. He’s destined for a long, lucrative professional career back home in Serbia, and five years in college might be enough for him. His decision appears to truly be 50-50 at this point.
EMMANUEL AKOT: The rare 6-foot-8 point guard had a breakout year in his second full season with the Broncos since transferring from Arizona. Akot was third on the team with 10.6 points per game while finishing second with 55 made 3-pointers, just two behind Shaver. He shot an impressive 38.7 percent from deep and hit a number of key shots – including at Utah State, Fresno State and against Nevada – to help contribute to wins. Akot missed four games in the middle of the season due to a knee injury and appeared less than 100 percent for several games once he returned, but finally got back to full strength near the end of the season. He led the team with 88 assists – but also had a team-high 75 turnovers. Akot had three 20-point games last season and seven games with at least 16 points. His unique combination of size and athleticism for a point guard gives him a mismatch on smaller guards in most games, and he used that to his advantage both from 3-point range but also when he’d post up at times in the paint. Akot was a former five-star recruit out of high school and the highest-ranked prep player ever to play for the Broncos in any sport. He appears to have the highest ceiling of the three and is the best candidate of the three to play professionally in the US, either in the G-League or the NBA. He just finished his fifth year of college and turned 23 last week – and could reasonably decide his best chance to take his shot at professional basketball is now. But with Kigab gone he’d likely be a bigger focal point of the offense next season and could see his stats – and maybe his stock – improve with one more year. His decision appears to be the toughest of the three.
Boise State is on spring break this week so no conversations between the players and coaches on their futures likely will happen until next week at the earliest. It’s expected the players will officially ‘declare for the NBA Draft’ at some point to gauge their pro prospects and interest, but they could still return to Boise State (which is what Derek Alston Jr. did two years ago) later this spring as long as they follow certain NCAA guidelines.
What the three decide to do will have a huge say in Boise State’s chances at repeating as Mountain West champions next season. And the wait for their decisions is officially on.