Boise State coach Leon Rice guided the Broncos to at least 20 wins in two of his first three seasons at the helm and led Boise State to its first ever at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in March. Expectations are even higher for the upcoming season. Rice sat down with Press-Tribune sports writer B.J. Rains to discuss last year’s historic run and the outlook for what’s ahead.
Idaho Press-Tribune: How are things going so far this offseason?
Leon Rice: It’s been an exciting time here at Boise State basketball, with the fact that we finished with an at-large NCAA Tournament berth — the first one in school history — and I think it put our guys in a great place approaching next season. They had a taste of success but now they understand how hard they have to work and they want more. They want to accomplish more and the exciting thing for us is we have over 92 percent of our minutes back from last year and we have some good kids coming in, so we feel optimistic about next year. Our guys are in a good place as far as how hard they are willing to work to accomplish it. They have high goals and they want to really work hard as a group to accomplish some great things next year.
IPT: In all your years both at Boise State and previously as an assistant coach at Gonzaga, have you ever been this excited about a team going into the season?
LR: I’ve been around some really good teams over the years but I’ve never been around a team that has as unified of a vision for what we’re doing and they are all on the same page with their goals. That is very refreshing and exciting. That’s pretty neat, but I look back on last year and we did a lot of great things and to replicate that we’re really going to have to improve.
IPT: When you reflect back on last year, what stands out to you?
LR: It was a great first step for us. Jim Nantz, who broadcasted our game, he told me after the game that we reminded him of the Butler team the year before they made their run, so that was encouraging. I feel good about the guys and the experience we have. We ran into a really, really good team in LaSalle that got hot at the right time. We knew if they did get hot that we were in trouble. They beat the Big 12 champions next in Kansas State and were up 20 at halftime. They were playing some good basketball, and through all that, you look up and you are down four points with two minutes to go and we were shooting free throws. Our guys competed, they learned what the NCAA Tournament is about and how hard it is to play in it. I think that does nothing but help them in the future.
IPT: How can that experience for a young team pay off in the future?
LR: Experience is priceless. That was something I talked about the first year of rebuilding in the Mountain West. We lost a lot of games due to a lack of experience and this past year we won some games because of our experience. Hopefully next year it carries over. You look back at last year and we did some amazing things. Beating Creighton on the road by 13, beating LSU by 20 here and then you go 14-1 at home and beat Colorado State — who I thought was a really good basketball team — you beat them by 13-15 here. San Diego State, UNLV, a lot of times I’d be watching those teams on TV and say, ‘Wow, we beat some pretty good teams,’ but we know as a staff and our players know, how much better we have to get to compete for a league title.
IPT: A lot of the early preseason polls have Boise State ranked somewhere between Nos. 20-25. How do you think your players will handle the higher expectations this year?
LR: I think our guys will handle it just fine. If you can be in the preseason top 25, that’s a great milestone for your program and that’s what we’re working for to be consistently that way. But again, the bottom line is how much we have to keep improving. We have to get better and we’re going to, we have some ideas on how we are going to get better and our guys are excited about that.
IPT: Any certain areas where you’d like to get better?
LR: If you look at our offense, we were one of the most efficient offenses in the Mountain West Conference, but we feel like we have some growth potential defensively. We did towards the end of the year. We got better defensively, where we guarded without fouling a little bit better and kept guys out of foul trouble and learned how to play a little bit better team defense. We’re going to make a big jump there and that’s going to help us.
IPT: How big was getting the game against Kentucky next year for your program?
LR: It’s something we’ve really strived to do in this program, to play top caliber teams. Last year we played Michigan State, Creighton, LSU, we have a four- year deal with Utah that’s coming to a close that I’d like to get something else going to replace that. But we want to play great teams and the challenge and the hard part we face is where we are geographically. To get teams to come to Boise is tough. I’d like to have some great home games like we did with LSU for our fans, but the thing I feel good about is staying in the Mountain West because the fans are guaranteed those nine terrific home games.
IPT: Some teams would shy away from the tough road non-conference games. You guys obviously don’t. What’s your philosophy when it comes to scheduling those, such as the one in December at Rupp Arena?
LR: It made us better. If we didn’t play at Michigan State, I don’t think we go in with enough moxie to beat Creighton. We learned a lot about ourselves and we adjusted and we fixed some of the things that we did wrong at Michigan State down the stretch of the game and I think it really helped us. Those are the atmospheres you have to (face) in the Mountain West. When you go to San Diego State, New Mexico, UNLV — all these places in the Mountain West — they have great fan bases and are tough places to play, so it’s great to take your guys out in the preseason and get some of those experiences. What a great deal for our boosters to see Rupp Arena and experience that. Everybody that has done that game has said it was amazing. I also realize that coach Calipari has six of the top 10 players in the country coming in, and they had some great players there already, and he is one of the best coaches in the country. They are No. 1 for a reason. Playing them at Rupp with 23,000, we know our work is cut out for us, but it’s a great challenge for our program.
IPT: Anthony Drmic was your leading scorer last season. Talk about his development and what you expect from him as a junior this season?
LR: We can keep getting Anthony better and I know he wants to get better. He developed from a shooter when we first got him where if he didn’t make threes he didn’t score, to becoming a scorer. We want to continue to get him better at finishing in the paint, being able to get to the free throw line a little bit more. He and Derrick Marks were all-league players as sophomores and I think there’s only five all-league players returning in the conference, and we have two of them, so that’s pretty exciting and that’s what you have to have if you want to contend for a title. Two or more all-league players, that’s where the formula starts, but we need the other guys to keep developing and that’s probably the biggest key to the season: Can another guy develop into that all-league range?
IPT: Is there a player you expect to have a breakout season this year?
LR: I think all of our guards are going to improve. Iggy (Hadziomerovic) has been hampered by injuries in his career here and I think that has set him back a bit, so we need him to just make it through a preseason injury-free. That would really help him. Mikey Thompson, I think he’s going to get better. Joe Hanstad, he’s shown us things in practice that he hasn’t shown us in games so as his confidence grows, I think he can be a factor. And then you have my seniors, Thomas Bropleh, Ryan Watkins and Jeff Elorriaga, who I think have the potential to go out with a bang. We’re bringing in some guys that I think can really help. The kid from Tacoma (Wash.), Dez Trent, I see him as a guy who right away can score at the college level and then we’ll continue to get his game more rounded, but he’s got as lot of raw ability like Anthony and Derrick have shown.
IPT: You had some turnover on the coaching staff with assistant coach Dave Wojcik leaving to become the head coach at San Jose State. You hired Danny Henderson, a high school coach, to replace him. How do you feel about the makeup of the coaching staff?
LR: I was pretty excited to have everybody back, all our players back and our system was in. And then Dave gets the head coaching job at San Jose State. We’re going to miss Dave, he’s been a big part of what we built here, but sometimes it helps to get new ideas on your staff and we were fortunate enough to get Danny Henderson. He’s one of the elite high school coaches in the country and he’s going to bring a lot to the table. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work and learn from him. Then Chris Cobbina, our Director of Basketball Operations, is leaving too, so we’ll make another hire there. That’s occupied a lot of our time, changing our staff, but we have our nucleus back with Jeff Linder and John Rillie, so that’s good.
IPT: You are adding three to next year’s team, but as of now only have lost two. Is another roster move coming?
LR: Every year you qualify for the NCAA Tournament you get an extra scholarship, it’s a new obscure rule (laughing jokingly). This day and age, 40 percent of college basketball players transfer. It’s ridiculous and that’s a rule that needs to be adjusted and changed so it’s not just roster management problems. I understand it, too. When you have 13 guys on scholarship, not all 13 are going to play, so guys are looking for more playing time. Someone could go to walk-on status or something but yes (another move is coming).
IPT: When you look at where the program is now and where you thought it would be when you took over three years ago, are you ahead of schedule?
LR: To be honest, I think we’re ahead of where we wanted to be. I knew how good the Mountain West was last year, it was one of the top leagues in the country, it was the No. 1 RPI league in the country and with how young we were, I thought we’d be competitive, but I didn’t know we could be in the upper-part of the league. Our guys did a great job of developing even faster than I had anticipated and for us to develop two all-league players in the Mountain West that quickly and as sophomores, that’s encouraging. To be able to get an at-large berth, all the things we did and the attendance going the way it did and the crowds, that’s the vision I had for the program and I’m just happy that we are arriving there. These guys are getting rewarded for it maybe a little sooner than we had planned, but we came to build a high-level basketball program, so we have a lot of work to do to continue that.”