LAS VEGAS – Many believe this Boise State men’s basketball team is different than previous teams. They’ll get a chance to prove it this week.
The Broncos (24-7, 15-3 MW) enter the Mountain West Tournament as the No. 1 seed after winning the program’s first regular season outright conference title since 1988.
But they have another dragon to slay. Boise State has traditionally struggled in this tournament – and in a big way.
The Broncos are just 5-10 all-time in the Mountain West Tournament and just 3-7 in the quarterfinal round since joining the league in 2012.
“If you look at where we’ve finished and historically does the fourth place team (win), does the third place team (win), how far do they go? I’ll bet it’s not statistically significant like ‘oh my god, they’ve underachieved’,” Rice questioned this week.
Unfortunately for Rice, the stats are fairly significant. Boise State not only has played poorly in Las Vegas, but they’ve mostly struggled despite being the better seed.
Boise State is 1-4 as the better seed in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament. The rest of the league is 30-5 as the better seed.
The Broncos have lost four straight quarterfinal games as the better seed. They’ve made the semifinals just three times in 10 years, and have just one appearance there since 2015 – and that came when the 5th-seeded Broncos beat No. 4 seed UNLV in the 2019 quarterfinals.
“There’s only one team that wins it every year,” Rice said. “One. That’s it. We haven’t made it to the Mountain West Championship game, but we’ve made it to the semifinals and we’ve had some good wins down there.”
Rice points to 2020 when the fifth-seeded Broncos beat UNLV in the quarterfinals and then led top-seed San Diego State (ranked No. 5 in the nation) by 16 points in the first half before eventually falling 81-68.
Boise State has two wins in the past three years in the Mountain West Tournament after previously getting upset as the No. 2 seed (2018) and the No. 3 seed ((2016, 2017) the previous three years.
“Yeah we’ve had some tough matchups and some tough games,” Rice said. “But I think two years ago we played one of the best teams in the country and had one of our best showings. We’ve competed down there. Sometimes it just hasn’t gone our way.”
Boise State was last the No. 1 seed in the tournament in 2015 and beat No. 9 seed Air Force 80-68 in the quarterfinals before being upset in overtime by No. 4 seed Wyoming. The Broncos led by 12 in the first half of that game.
The lack of success in the Mountain West Tournament is the first thing critics of Rice point to. And he knows it.
“That’s a fan narrative that they just love to say,” Rice said. “Guess what? Has Colorado State won the tournament? No. You don’t hear that about them because they’ve gone through different coaches. Larry Eustachy’s team lost one that cost them an NCAA Tournament. It’s happened to everybody, that’s my point.
“It’s a super competitive league and you get teams that travel really well and teams that have fans that show up in multitudes. San Diego State, it was like playing them in San Diego when we played them (in 2020). We haven’t had a huge following down there but the ones that have come really have helped us. I think it plays into things when you have a homecourt advantage almost….Those things do make a difference, a fan base that shows up.”
But it’s a new team with new players – and the previous struggles have little impact on how the Broncos play this week. Boise State also figures to have more fans at the Thomas and Mack Center than they’ve had in recent years.
Boise State will play Thursday at 1 p.m. MT/Noon PT against the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 8 seed Nevada and No. 9 seed New Mexico. A win in the quarterfinals – which they’ve accomplished just three times in 10 years – would push them into Friday’s semifinal against either UNLV or Wyoming.
“We don’t think about it,” senior Abu Kigali said of previous teams struggling at the Mountain West Tournament. “I know my team really well and I think we play better in tournaments because of the environment we’re in. I’m really excited to play with those guys. They are going to be ready to play. They are really hungry after the Colorado State loss and we’re going to go get it.”
Asked about what it would mean to get a third chance to play Colorado State after losing to the Rams twice already this season, Kigab smiled. That game would be in Saturday’s title game.
“I’d definitely love to play them again,” Kigab said. “I told some of the guys in the handshake line, we’ll see you in the finals.”
Rice, the Broncos, the media and even most fans would agree this team is different. Boise State relies on defense and rebounding – two things that help in the postseason – and they also don’t have to worry about the pressure of needing to win to get into the NCAA Tournament next week.
The Broncos have done enough to already have a spot in the Big Dance locked up, meaning they don’t have that added pressure built in this week.
It’s a been a rough go in the Mountain West Tournament for Boise State in the past, but the Broncos have maybe their best team in history – and they hope to prove it the next few days.
“Maybe all that stuff does weigh in on guys but I think this team may be different,” Rice said. “They showed it last week (at Colorado State). Nobody would have showed up and played like we did last Saturday. I think in that aspect this team is different.”