Leon Rice had an immediate message for fans following Boise State’s loss to Northwestern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament 10 days ago.
They’ll be back. And soon.
It had barely been 30 minutes since the Broncos’ season had ended the same way each of the program’s previous eight trips to the Big Dance have finished – with a loss – but Rice was already eager to look ahead.
And for good reason. The Broncos could be even better next season.
“You don’t want to close the book on this season because I’m not ready for that,” Rice told Bronco Nation News in an exclusive interview after the loss to Northwestern. “But there’s an excitement for next year already for us and what we have.”
Rice is well aware of fans’ concerns about the lack of depth. He feels the same way. The Broncos gave just seven players the majority of minutes last season – mostly because those were the seven Rice trusted and thought deserved to play.
And the lack of depth caught up to the Broncos when it mattered the most.
“I think my words ring true from the very start of the year – depth is going to be a major achilles heal,” Rice said. “You couldn’t afford anything. Our margin for error win injuries (and foul trouble) was just so small.”
Starting point guard Marcus Shaver Jr. was banged up all season and never showed the potential many hoped to see. His ankle injury late in the first half of the loss to Northwestern proved to be a key moment in the game.
Freshman Jace Whiting impressed in limited playing time throughout the season, but there’s no comparison to a fifth-year veteran and a raw freshman.
“There won’t be many regrets I have with his team but the No. 1 regret I have is poor Marcus Shaver,” Rice said. “I kept thinking his luck will turn and away we would go in the NCAA Tournament.
“That ankle was bad. He couldn’t even walk at halftime. And we couldn’t afford to have that because there just wasn’t enough depth. That’s lot to put on your freshman in an NCAA Tournament game.”
The Broncos lose Shaver Jr., Naje Smith and Lukas Milner from last year’s team. Seldom-used backup center Burke Smith already announced his intentions to transfer, and more from a group including reserves Mo Sylla, Pavle Kuzmanovic, Kobe Young and Sada NgaNga could be on the way out as well.
But Boise State returns the talented trio of Max Rice, Tyson Degenhart and Chibuzo Agbo – which figures to be one of the best groups of returning talent in the Mountain West next season. That’s not a bad place to start.
“We have three all-league players coming back in my estimation,” Rice said. “We’ve got some good young guys that will develop, we have some great freshmen coming in and we’re going to add some pieces to this super team.”
Super team. Yes, he said it. And he said it again later in the interview.
The open roster spots allow the Broncos to seek upgrades – and by all indications they are shooting for the moon. Boise State will add heralded freshmen Andrew Meadow and Chris Lockett – both who could get playing time right away as freshmen – but the Broncos plan to use the transfer portal to find an immediate upgrade in talent.
Boise State is looking for a point guard and a center – and starting, impact players at both spots. The Broncos would also like to add depth across the board so the starters aren’t forced to play 35-plus minutes every game.
“I think it will be huge,” Degenhart said of adding depth. “You see San Diego State, they are playing eight-nine guys and being able to not play 30-plus minutes and they had the depth to make a good run this year. (Hopefully) we can add some depth next year.”
Boise State has reportedly been in contact with several transfers including UNLV guard Keshon Gilbert, Portland guard Mike Meadows, Grand Canyon guard Chance McMillian, Valparaiso guard Cam Palesse, UTRGV guard Adante’ Holiman and Jamestown (NAIA) forward Mason Walters.
Several others in the portal including forwards Eddie Lampkin (TCU), Cam Martin (Kansas) and Fardaws Aimaq (Texas Tech) would seemingly be perfect fits as well.
Boise State likely has talked with several other players in the portal and has other targets, but not all contact and interest has been made public on social media.
The Broncos will likely make two or three additions via the transfer portal, but it could be more depending on how many players transfer out. The Broncos are searching for two starters and quality depth to come off the bench – and Rice is confident the Broncos will find them.
After recent success with transfers (Shaver Jr., Agbo, Malden Armus, Emmanuel Ako and Abu Kigab) and two straight years of making the NCAA Tournament – along with two starting spots to offer up – the Broncos figure to be an attractive spot for transfers
The sales pitch for Rice is easy: want to win a lot of games, play in the NCAA Tournament, improve and have a chance to be a major contributor? Come to Boise State.
“I feel like we have all the makings,” Rice said. “When you have the nucleus of guys we have and you add the right guys to it, all of a sudden you have a chance to be a super team and that’s what I envision and that’s what we’re going to go out and get.
“We’re going to find some guys that fit with these guys and are unselfish and great players. It’s a great job for somebody to come in and play with these guys because we’re going to have a great team next year.”
Asked about the need to improve this offseason via the transfer portal to help the Broncos get over the NCAA Tournament hump in the near future, Rice said, “That’s our job. That’s what we’re going to try and do. We’ve done well with that before.”
Some fans are understandably frustrated with the Broncos’ inability to make a run in March. 0-9 mark in the Big Dance is the most appearances without a win in NCAA history.
But to not see progress is crazy. The Broncos have won at least 24 games in each of the past two years – two of the five 24-win seasons in program history – and have the most Mountain West wins of any team during that span.
They also beat San Diego State earlier this season and three times last season. The Aztecs will play Saturday night in the Final Four.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Degenhart said. “I’m excited for the future.”
Sometimes it takes a little luck – and the Broncos haven’t had much in the NCAA Tournament. They had to play Dayton in Dayton in 2015, a lottery pick in under-seeded Memphis in 2022 and Shaver going down with the injury this season.
But the track record shows the Broncos will ultimately be competitive again next season. And probably back competing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Rice knows that’s not good enough to some. And it’s not to him either. And that’s why he and the coaching staff are hoping to make significant additions to the roster.
Keep getting better, keep moving forward and Rice knows the Broncos will soon burst through the wall. He saw it at Gonzaga. And he knows it can happen in Boise.
“We’re going to get there,” Rice said. “We keep knocking on the door and keep getting better. Our program is growing, everything around it is growing and we’re excited. We know what’s ahead of us.
“We’ll keep knocking at the door and we’ll get it done.”
A ‘super team’ would certainly help.