BOISE — The Boise State men’s basketball team didn’t just feel confident they’d be in the NIT. They expected to make a deep run.
The Broncos will forever be left to wonder ‘what could have been’ after the NCAA Tournament and NIT were canceled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Boise State won nine of 13 games down the stretch and gave then-No. 4 San Diego State all it wanted in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals. The Broncos led by as many as 16 points in the first half before falling 81-68 in what ended up being their final game of the season.
Instead of potentially playing together for a few more weeks and extending the careers of five seniors, Boise State had an unwanted early finish to a year the players and coaches thought still had a magical run left in it.
“We all did because we were playing good basketball down the stretch,” coach Leon Rice told the Idaho Press. “I think our guys were excited about it. They wanted to stay together. I know the seniors wanted to keep playing. It was a great group to be around.
“You look at what Rod (RJ Williams) was doing at the end of his career, it was crazy the numbers he was putting up. (Alex) Hobbs played maybe his best game here in his last game. You look at all those different things the seniors and veterans were doing, it made you exciting to keep playing.”
Who knows if the Broncos would have even gotten in the NIT. They were included in projections from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and others, but they could have been bumped out had there been a lot of automatic bids handed out due to upsets in some of the smaller conferences.
There won’t be an ‘NIT appearance’ banner hung in the rafters of ExtraMile Arena, but the thought they would have been included — or at least been close — shows the improvement the Broncos made from a program-record 20 losses the year before.
“I feel like we were in,” Rice said. “Talking to people at the league office and stuff, I think we had a great shot at playing in the NIT. And that’s a hard thing to get in. The percentage of teams that play in the NCAA Tournament or NIT is a lot lower than football teams that play in bowl games.
“It’s quite an accomplishment. We are always shooting for the NCAA, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t get in the NIT as an at-large pick if you didn’t have a great year.”
Maybe the worst part for the Broncos was that no advanced warning came before their season was abruptly ended. There was no NIT selection show to be upset about, no team meeting where they heard the news first from Rice.
Players and coaches instead found out on social media when the NCAA released a statement late in the afternoon of March 12 saying the winter and spring championships had all been canceled. Just like that, in the five seconds it took to read a tweet, the Broncos were done.
“It all happened so fast that it felt like it couldn’t happen,” Rice said. “When you look back now in the mirror you say of course it had to happen that way, but when it happened it was a shock to all of us.”
Despite the early ending, Boise State finished 20-12 and in fifth place in the Mountain West standings — the same spot they were predicted to finish in the preseason media poll. It was the eighth time in 10 years the Broncos won at least 20 games under Rice, but it was a big improvement from the 13-20 mark they had during the 2018-19 season.
“I was proud of the way we competed consistently and kept fighting,” Rice said. “We had some historic moments with this group. The comeback against Utah State, beating BYU in overtime, beating Pacific in triple overtime — we showed some toughness.
“I told one coach in the league we were going to be good before the year and he said it’s a long way from 13 wins to 20, so I was really proud of our guys. There’s not a lot of teams that make that jump in one year. It was a good accomplishment. Now we always have higher goals and we have higher goals for next year and we’re excited about those.”
Things likely would have been different had Arizona transfer Emmanuel Akot been ruled eligible like the Broncos expected to happen. Boise State also lost four games during the fall semester before Oregon transfer Abu Kigab became eligible in mid-December.
“It would have helped to have Abu the whole year,” Rice said. “We lost to Irvine and I think having his muscle and physicality would have really helped us in that game, and we lost by two at New Mexico without him. The crazy thing is you win that New Mexico game and you finish tied for second place.”
The biggest individual achievement of the season was outgoing senior Justinian Jessup finishing as the all-time Mountain West 3-point leader. He had 325 made 3-pointers to Utah State guard Sam Merrill’s 319. The season being cut short early helped Jessup keep the record because Merrill may have had extra chances to try and catch Jessup with Utah State in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a remarkable record and it’s going to be a hard record to break because you have to play four years and you have to put up consistent numbers,” Rice said. “A player that good a lot of times comes out early, so it’s going to be a hard record and one that probably stands for a long, long time.”
Boise State played 11 games against teams that won at least 20 games this year, and 15 of its 32 games were against teams that had at least 19 wins. The Broncos went 6-9 in games against teams that finished with at least 19 wins.
They beat BYU (24-8, No. 18 in final AP poll) and Pacific (23-10), as well as Utah State at home in overtime in the historic, 16-point comeback in the final minutes.
The Broncos lost to Oregon (24-7, Pac-12 regular season champion), UC Irvine (21-11, Big West regular season champs), Tulsa (21-10, tied for AAC regular season championship), Utah State (26-8, Mountain West Tournament champions) and three times to San Diego State (30-2, No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll).
“We won most of the close ones which was a great sign,” Rice said. “And some of the teams we played, man, a bunch of them ended up way better than we thought they would. Given our schedule, 20 wins just doesn’t happen. These guys went out and did it.”
Boise State, which went 13-2 at home, says goodbye to seniors Jessup, Hobbs, Williams, Marcus Dickinson and Robin Jorch. They add four Division I transfers in Akot, Marcus Shaver, Mladen Armus and Devonaire Doutrive.
Kigab and guards RayJ Dennis and Max Rice will return, while it’s possible freshman Riley Abercrombie will look to transfer and find more playing time elsewhere. And then there’s the looming decision for leading scorer Derrick Alston Jr., who likely will at least test the NBA Draft waters.
It all adds up to what could be maybe the most talented roster in program history next year. And thanks to the Broncos winning 20 games this year, there’s plenty of momentum to build on.
“We got back to being a really good basketball team,” Rice said. “And I think it’s going to be a big springboard for next year.”