Boise State’s third game of the season against Charlotte was one of its worst showings of the Leon Rice-era.
The Broncos were coming off a 10-point win over Washington State — their first win of the season — in Boise, even though it was considered a “neutral” site game.
Its contest against Charlotte, who was 2-0 at the time, marked the first of the Myrtle Beach Invitational on Nov. 17. The Broncos, clearly still trying to find their offensive identity after losing three key players in Emmanuel Akot, Abu Kigab and Mladen Armus, put together one of the worst offensive performances one could imagine.
Boise State strung together just 11 points in the first half (!!), finishing with 42 in a 12-point loss while shooting just 31.5 percent from the floor and 21.3 percent (5-23) from 3-point range. Its adjusted offensive rating of 66.8 — per KenPom — was its second-lowest since Rice took over in 2010-11, the worst being when it totaled a 63.5 offensive rating last year against Cal State Bakersfield, when it lost 46-39 (yes, that was a real final score).
“That was the most pathetic offensive display in the first half I’ve had,” Leon Rice told reporters after their loss against Charlotte, according to B.J. Rains of Bronco Nation News. “And I saw the frustration in those guys and it affected their play.
“We let our missed shots affect really everything else we did,” Rice said. “It got us too desperate and we turned the ball over and we got out of our defense and let them have layups. You hold a team to 54, you can win that game.
“It was square peg, round hole. Instead of making the easy plays, I almost saw like desperation in the first half, and you never want to play that way. … Charlotte wanted this game low scoring, and we wanted it to be up and down a little more. When it didn’t immediately go our way, we had no resolve and that’s what I’m disappointed with.”
Boise State quickly flipped the script after that loss, winning nine straight (three against Quad 2 opponents) and outscoring opponents by nearly 20 points per game over that stretch. While the situations weren’t exactly parallel, it was somewhat similar to what happened versus CSUB: The Broncos lost an overtime game to Saint Louis by four, but rattled off a 14-game win streak (seven against Quad 1-2 opponents).
And we remember how that ended, right?
There’s myriad other factors that play into year-to-year success, but that begs the question: Does Boise State have enough to repeat as MW regular season champs?
At 15-4 with a league-best 5-1 record, there’s definitely a pathway.
Let’s preface by stating the tournament’s oftentimes a crapshoot among the top squads. And there’s been an inordinate amount of parity within the Mountain West this year, so even another regular season title will be incredibly rewarding, even if it’s not the end goal. The conference sits fifth in NET Rankings inbetween the Big East (UConn, Xavier, Marquette, Creighton, Providence, etc.) and the Pac-12 (UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, USC, etc.). Typically, the Mountain West is usually on the outside-looking-in on those top-6/7 conferences.
Last season, the MWC finished No. 8 in the NET behind the American; they were No. 10 behind the A-10 and the West Coast Conference before COVID-19 halted the 2019-20 season; they were No. 12 behind the A-10, MAC, WCC and IVY in 2018-19, the first year the NET was implemented. The biggest outlier was in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, when a number of conferences were limited to playing primarily conference competition (MW finished No. 13). According the KenPom, the Mountain West has hovered around the 9-10th best conference (out of 30-plus) nationally over the last 10 seasons. Though last season and this one, they’re No. 7.
In other words: The Mountain West is the best it’s been in nearly a decade. And there’s still two-thirds of conference play remaining — so there’s still plenty of time before we make any conclusive assumptions.
But Boise has certainly looked the part of late.
According to Barttorvik, which also adjusts its offensive rating based on the opponent faced, it’s logged an 118.3 offensive rating over its most recent five-game win streak and 110.2 since its loss against Charlotte — which would be the 12th and T-70 amongst D-I programs over a full season, respectively. In Boise’s eight games against Quad 1-2 opponents over that stretch, that offense rating buoys to 113.6, including a Mountain West-best 121.4 offensive rating in their four MW games against such opponents, albeit a small sample.
The Broncos’ guard play is at, or even better than last year’s squad, solely based on the improvements of both Marcus Shaver and Max Rice. Rice wasn’t used close to the degree that he is now offensively — and that was exemplified in Tuesday’s 15-point win over Nevada.
Rice lit the nylon on fire with six 3-pointers — his sixth game with three or more triples — finishing with 29 points and five rebounds. Boise’s also gotten capable playmaking juice from freshman guard Jace Whiting, a reliable bench piece that wasn’t very prominant on last year’s squad outside of Shaver.
Rice and Shaver make up just two of its top scorers. Tyson Degenhart’s efficiency — specifically from 3-point range — has dropped off a considerable amount, but he still leads the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) on 56.9 percent true-shooting, and is scoring more on a per-minute and per-possession basis than he was as a freshman. Chibuzo Agbo has been one of the conference’s most productive transfers, averaging 12.1 points, including 14.3 points on remarkable efficiency (61.3 TS%) in six conference games.
Boise State’s team defense between the quartet, along with Naje Smith and Lukas Milner, has been even more remarkable. They’re 10th in defense and top-10 in defensive rebounding; they’re in the top-50 in opponents’ 2-point and 3-point efficiency and defend well without fouling. That’s an important makeup.
Leon Rice has built a model of consistency since he’s arrived in the Gem State. He’s fielded 20-win teams in all but three of his 12 seasons leading up to 2022-23 — and one of the three he didn’t was the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, when Boise still won nearly 68 percent of its games. Since Boise joined the conference in 2011-12 (11 seasons), Boise’s finished in the top-5 nine times, including in the top-3 five times and, of course, earned their first outright MW Title last year.
His bugaboos have come in March. But Rice is still one of the top coaches in the Mountain West — there’s a world where they repeat in the regular season. It’s not inconceivable.
It’s going to be remarkably difficult to replicate any success similar to last year’s program with how deep the conference is. San Diego State and New Mexico stand in their way, as do Nevada and Utah State, among others. While there might be a seperator at the top, the bottom — Wyoming, Fresno State and Air Force — are all better than bottom-feeders in most seasons. Plenty of programs are outplaying their preseason expectation, such as the aforementioned Nevada, New Mexico, Utah State and San Jose State.
Boise State sits atop the MW in NET and leads the MW in Quad 1-2 wins with seven (all Quad 2). And they’re slated to play seven more by the end of conference play, beginning with New Mexico on Friday.
There’s room to pad the resume, but there’s also plenty of winnable games. So I wouldn’t rule it out for Leon Rice’s Broncos, who are better than ever on both sides of the rock and are, once again, continuing to find their stride midway through the season.