SACRAMENTO, Calif. – There might have been a slight sigh of relief from Bronco Nation once Boise State was announced to play a Northwestern team making its second ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament – and avoiding blue bloods such as Kentucky, Michigan State or Illinois.
There was no such feeling among the coaches and players of Boise State.
“It’s impressive what they’ve done … Coach of the year, defensive player of the year, number two seed in the Big Ten,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said Wednesday.
The No. 7 seeded Wildcats (21-11, 12-8 Big Ten) will face off for a spot in the Round of 32 with the No.10 Broncos (24-9, 13-5 MW) at 5:35 p.m. MT on truTV.
The Wildcats are coming off their best regular season in the Big Ten with a school-record 12 conference wins along with finishing second in the conference overall – their best finish since the ’58-59 season.
“From the moment the season ended last year until where we are now, coach has kind of just made the statement of this is who we are, this is what we do,” said Northwestern guard Boo Buie, who averages 17.1 points per game. “We’re going to do anything we have to do to prove people wrong.”
There’s no hiding that defense is the name of the game for Northwestern. When the defense is clicking, the Wildcats are winning.
Northwestern holds a 20-2 record when holding opponents to 65 or less points, including a win over #1 ranked Purdue in which the Wildcats held the top-ranked Boilermakers to just 58 points.
Kenpom.com has the Wildcats ranked thirteenth in defensive efficiency among the 360+ teams throughout Division I basketball.
“We really, really dwell on our defense and take pride in it.” Buie said. “Our defense requires all five guys to be out there and be connected.”
The Wildcats come into Thursday’s game having very little NCAA Tournament experience, having last made the Big Dance in 2017 and owning just one NCAA Tournament appearance ahead of Thursday’s first round matchup.
But Northwestern head coach Chris Collins lacks no experience. The 2023 Big Ten Coach of the Year spent 13 years at Duke under college basketball royalty in Mike Krzyzewski and is also the son of former NBA All-Star and head coach Doug Collins.
Being a former coach’s son, Collins had praise for Boise State’s Max Rice.
“He’s really smart, he’s tough (and) can really shoot the ball,” Collins said. “He’s scary because he’s one of those guys if he hits one I’ve seen him go one a run, four, five in a row.”
Buie is similar to Rice, owning the capability to strike on a defense at any point in the game. Buie and guard Chase Audige combine for over 30 points per game for the Wildcats.
So, in the end, what type of game will the world see Thursday afternoon? A defensive battle? Two offensive juggernauts?
“Sometimes those games surprise you. You never know,” Leon Rice said.
Said Buie: “I think it’s going to be a fun game. We’ve got a lot of things in common with Boise State.”