BOISE — There weren’t a ton of places Leon Rice could go to for scoring off his bench last season.
The Boise State men’s basketball coach is hoping that problem has been solved.
The Boise State men’s basketball team opens the regular season tonight at 8 p.m. at ExtraMile Arena against Life Pacific, and one of the strengths of the group appears to be their depth off the bench.
“Oh, absolutely,” Rice said. “To have some guys that can come in and impact the game, guys that can come in and make shots, will be (a big plus).”
The Broncos seemingly have one of the better starting fives in the Mountain West in Derrick Alston, Justinian Jessup, Alex Hobbs, Marcus Dickinson and RJ Williams. But it’s spots six through nine that often make the difference over the course of a long season, and last year it was a big problem.
Pat Dembley, Malek Harwell and David Wacker contributed a grand total of just 9.7 points a game off the bench last year and weren’t much of a threat to opposing teams when they came in. Dembley was inconsistent, Harwell was a defensive-first guard and Wacker was a rebounder and defender inside.
Williams started 18 games as he rotated some with Wacker and Zach Haney, but was one of the only contributors when he came off the bench, averaging 9.3 points by himself.
With only nine players available to them last season, that was it. There was no threat of a shooter coming in off the bench and burying a few quick 3-pointers. When a starter got in foul trouble or needed a breather, the drop off was severe and noticeable.
“There wasn’t a lot to turn to, and then you had some guys playing with injuries and I couldn’t give them the appropriate breaks they needed and that adds up,” Rice said.
The lack of depth off the bench contributed to Boise State’s 1-9 record in games decided by three points or less or in overtime, and their 10 losses when leading at halftime.
The starters had to play too many minutes and often appeared fatigued down the stretch. When foul trouble hit them, the Broncos had nobody they could turn to for scoring.
“We were in every game and if we could have had a little bit more, where a guy gets hot once in a while, you know the pinch-hitters come in and get hits, it would have helped,” Rice said. “It’s a tough thing to do off the bench but I think I have a lot of guys that can do that this year.”
Dembley, Harwell and Wacker are now gone, and replaced by a do-it-all point guard in freshman RayJ Dennis and a pair of shooters in redshirt freshmen Riley Abercrombie and Max Rice. Even backup center Robin Jorch came off the bench to score 15 points in 15 minutes against West Coast Baptist in last week’s exhibition.
“We’re much deeper on the bench,” Max Rice said. “We’ve got some guys coming off redshirts, some transfers. We’re just a lot deeper and have more options. That’s the biggest difference.”
Dennis showed off his versatility in the exhibition, knocking down 4 of 6 shots from 3-point range and slamming home an impressive dunk in transition. The three-star prospect from near Chicago came in with plenty of hype, and he got off to a good start last week.
“He’s a gamer,” Leon Rice said. “You have to remember it’s (November) and he’s a freshman. He hasn’t had many opportunities. You’ll see this kid get better and better. All these freshmen, they’ll get better and more comfortable. They’ll contribute.”
Max Rice and Abercrombie didn’t show off their shooting skills in the exhibition, going a combined 1 for 13 from 3-point range. But with the first-game jitters out of the way, both should end up being solid contributors for the Broncos this season.
“I think they were a little bit too excited and jazzed up,” Leon Rice said. “I don’t worry about those guys with the way they shoot the ball. Their numbers will pan out at the end. … They won’t let that happen again.”
The bench will get even stronger come mid-December when Oregon transfer Abi Kigab becomes eligible. And the wild card remains 6-foot-8 wing Emmanuel Akot, an Arizona transfer that is hoping to play this season. Should he land immediate eligibility? Look out.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed (with Akot) because all of a sudden that’s a lot more size,” Leon Rice said.
The play of Alston, Jessup and Hobbs will largely determine how much better the Broncos can be from their program-record 20-loss season a year ago. But more scoring off the bench will certainly help, and be a big change from a year ago.
“Definitely,” Jorch said. “We definitely have more firepower off the bench.”
WOMEN PLAY FIRST: The Boise State women’s basketball team opens its season at 5:30 p.m. at ExtraMile Arena against Lewis-Clark State College. Tickets for the men’s game will be valid for the women’s game, and those purchasing tickets before halftime of the women’s game will get them for the discounted rate of $6. The women were predicted to win the Mountain West, and received 15 votes in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.