BOISE — A now six-year drought from making the NCAA Tournament is just as frustrating to Boise State men’s basketball coach Leon Rice as it is to many fans.
But speaking with the Idaho Press during a sit-down interview in his office this week, Rice remains confident in the future of the program and Boise State’s ability to soon ‘get over the hump’ and get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2015.
After narrowly missing the tournament a year ago, Rice has assembled a talented, veteran roster and a solid schedule that he believes will have the Broncos again challenging for a Mountain West title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament next season.
“I love the direction this program is heading,” Rice said. “It’s never a direct, straight line to the top and it never goes as planned. There’s always going to be ups and downs. But I like the guys we have, the talent level we’ve gotten, the character of kids we’ve gotten — especially this group right now.”
Boise State got off to a 13-1 start last season and was on the cusp of landing in the AP Top 25 rankings before struggling down the stretch. The Broncos lost seven of 12 games to fall into the NIT and went 6-8 overall in the final 14 games.
A team some hyped as the most talented team in program history ended up where many other Bronco teams have recently — watching the NCAA Tournament from home.
Without using it as an excuse, Rice said the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on his team shouldn’t be minimized or ignored. The Broncos had to play six of their toughest eight games on the road due to a change in the Mountain West schedule format, and they were able to play just five nonconference games which limited their chances at quality wins.
Throw in near-daily COVID-19 testing and the emotional and mental strain from having to basically quarantine the entire season to get through it, and Rice said his players should be commended for how they handled it.
“It was a year where I was actually pretty proud with the way our guys handled it and competed all year long,” Rice said. “They did some great things. Sure we wanted a little more out of it, no doubt, but all things considered I thought those guys did a great job.
“Nobody understood the day-to-day life that the kids had to go through with the testing and the travel and the isolation in these hotels and not having fans around or at the games. But they kept plugging away and showed up so I was actually proud of them.”
Rice noted the makeup game with Fresno State as a microcosm of the oddity of the season. After being on the road for four days in San Diego, the Broncos had just one day of prep work before playing a makeup game against Fresno State the final week of the regular season that meant nothing for the league race.
In a game that could only hurt their chances of making the NCAA Tournament, the Broncos suffered a surprising 67-64 loss to the Bulldogs. The loss may have ultimately kept the Broncos out of the Big Dance.
“I think if you talk to most coaches it was just such a different year with all we went through and all the goofy stuff like that makeup game,” Rice said. “And we were still right there.”
Rice noted how things would have been different had RayJ Dennis’ shot at the buzzer at Nevada not rimmed out.
“It was preposterously close to going in — I’ve never seen a ball go down the rim that far and not go in,” Rice said. “And if that goes in maybe everything is changed. Maybe one shot changes everything because who knows what we do the next game (another loss to Nevada), and then all of a sudden we’ve got a road win and a resume win.”
Other contributing factors included the midseason addition of four-star guard Devonaire Doutrive following his transfer from Arizona. The pieces never seemed to fit perfectly down the stretch, particularly once the full projected eight-man rotation all were available together.
“It’s not Devonaire’s fault, but when you add a guy at the semester like that it’s hard,” Rice said. “Especially when you are clicking so good. We were playing good basketball.”
Rice also revealed that Doutrive and Emmanuel Akot — considered by some to be Boise State’s best two players by the end of the season — were unable to practice for several days down the stretch due to injury. Doutrive had a cleanup surgery Wednesday on his knee to fix a minor issue that nagged him for much of last year.
“They were in and out and in and out of the lineup and that killed us,” Rice said. “Even when they were playing they weren’t practicing, and it just kind of disrupted the team and didn’t allow for the improvements they needed to make and wanted to make. Their durability and reliability will be greatly improved next season.”
Boise State loses leading scorer Derrick Alston Jr. and Dennis, which opens up playing time and opportunity for several players including Doutrive, Akot, Abu Kigab and Marcus Shaver.
Less can sometimes equate to more, and the Broncos feel that could be the case heading into next season. The projected starting five of Akot, Doutrive, Shaver, Kigab and Mladen Armus should get more playing time and more continuity together compared to the different lineups and rotations used last year.
Shaver could benefit the most from less bodies competing for minutes. He’s the second-leading returning scorer at 10.6 points per game.
“I want to put the ball in his hands more because he’s dynamic,” Rice said. “He’s a great scorer.”
Kigab is ahead of schedule on his rehab from shoulder surgery and has been cleared for non-contact drills such as shooting. Max Rice is also progressing from a pair of surgeries to his foot and hip and could be cleared to begin running this week.
The Broncos are in the second week of summer workouts and appear eager to turn the page from the disappointment of a year ago.
“The guys look great — they have a good bounce to them,” Rice said. “They got a little time off in the spring. Emmanuel is looking the most athletic he’s looked and his legs feel better. Shaver looks amazing.”
Rice has plenty of reasons to be excited about this year’s team, the most of which may be the improvement he saw from so many players last season. Akot, Doutrive and Shaver all could be ready for breakout years, while Kigab and Armus have exciting outlooks as well.
“It’s time for those guys to have their career-best years,” Rice said. “I want these guys for them and for us and for this team to all have career-best years and baring injuries I think it’s headed that direction. That gets all of us excited about it.”
An improved nonconference schedule should also help the Broncos this season. Boise State will host Saint Louis, Tulsa and Santa Clara at home and play a neutral site game in Spokane against Washington State. They also will participate in the Charleston Classic alongside West Virginia, Clemson, Ole Miss, Marquette and St. Bonaventure.
The combination of a talented roster and solid schedule have Rice and the Broncos energized about the group’s potential.
“These guys are great and fun to coach and fun to work with and we’re loading up a heck of a schedule for them so they are going to have opportunities,” Rice said.
Rice, who said Boise State was the “lowest-budget team ever to receive an at-large bid” to the NCAA Tournament back in 2015, has long pushed for an increased budget for things such as assistant coach pay, additional charter flights and recruiting. Boise State has one of the lowest budgets in the Mountain West.
While that all won’t come instantly this summer, he’s confident the arrival of athletic director Jeramiah Dickey will provide a welcomed boost as they look to ‘get over the hump’ and get back to the NCAA Tournament on a more consistent basis.
“I’m excited about Jeramiah and the direction we’re going,” Rice said. “We’re going to keep building this program.”