LAS VEGAS — It was no surprise to Boise State seniors Justinian Jessup and Alex Hobbs Tuesday when the majority of questions they got at Mountain West Media Day centered around them losing so many close games last season.
“We kind of knew those questions would be coming our way,” Jessup joked afterwards.
Boise State went 1-9 in games decided by three points or less and lost 10 games in which they led at halftime. The end result was a 13-20 record and the most losses in a single season in school history.
The Broncos believe they will be much improved, and the media that covers the Mountain West seems to agree. Despite an eighth-place finish a year ago, the Broncos were picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll released Tuesday at the start of Media Day at the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Casino.
“With the season we had last year I actually think it’s a little bit of a sign of respect,” Hobbs said. “With where we finished last year and for them to pick us higher, that’s good.
“I think we’re just excited to get out there and prove ourselves. Anytime you lose close games like that, you want to get out there and prove not necessarily that it was a fluke, but that you know that’s not what you are. I don’t think we got a chance to do that last year. We’re ready and excited to get out there and compete and do that.”
Forward Derrick Alston Jr. was named to the five member preseason All-Mountain West team Tuesday after bursting onto the scene with 13.4 points per game last year. He averaged just 0.6 points per game two years ago, and his jump of 12.8 points per game was the second biggest increase of any player in the country.
Alston wasn’t in Las Vegas on Tuesday, but plenty of the talk surrounding the Broncos was about him. The former walk-on was the topic of questions to Rice, Boise State’s players and even those with other teams.
“Obviously he’s putting time in the gym and they are doing a great job working with him,” Fresno State coach Justin Hutson said. “He came from nowhere last year, but you could tell he was a good player. He can shoot it, he can play inside and out. He had the length and the skill. He deserves the first-team all-conference accolades.”
Utah State was the unanimous choice to win the league, while San Diego State, New Mexico and Nevada also finished ahead of the Broncos in the preseason poll.
The Broncos have outperformed their predicted spot in the preseason poll in six of the last nine years. And others think finishing better than fifth is certainly possible. Lindy’s Magazine called them a ‘dangerous off the radar candidate to win the Mountain West’.
Boise State’s depth and balance should be a strength this year. The Broncos have three of the top 10 leading returning scorers in the league in Jessup (No. 4, 14.0 ppg), Alston (No. 6, 13.4 ppg) and Hobbs (No. 10, 12.1 ppg). Only one other team, Air Force, even has two players in the top 10.
The Broncos are hoping that balance equals an increase in scoring. Boise State finished No. 202 nationally in scoring offense a season ago at just 71.6 points per game.
“Way more,” Rice said when asked if the Broncos will score more points this year. “We have more balance, better health, you know Alex was hurt most of the year, Justinian was fighting through it. Derrick going into last year had averaged half a point, so we didn’t really know what we had. Now you’re going to see a lot more consistency out of him.
“I just think we have really good chemistry, we have a lot of experienced guys that make each other better and everybody that is back is a better player than they were last year.”
A wild card in all this is Arizona transfer Emannuel Akot, who remains in limbo as the Broncos await word on his appeal to the NCAA to earn immediate eligibility this season.
“He’s an unbelievable kid. I just love that kid and he’s handling it as well as he could,” Rice said. “He just shows up and works his tail off every single day and has a great attitude about it. It is what it is and you just have to approach it the best way you can. We’ll see.”
Asked if feels the Broncos have a strong case to get him eligible, Rice said, “I feel like we do, but I don’t know what the person on the other end feels. You never know.”
Most around the league expect the Broncos to be good even if Akot is forced to sit the year. The theme Tuesday was that the poor record wasn’t indicative of the talent level on the roster, and that the Broncos were much better than the final results showed.
“No question they were and everyone knows that,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “That’s why everyone thinks they are going to be good this year, at least I do, because I know what they have and I know Leon does a great job and they have the talent and the experience.
“I have no doubt their fortunes are going to turn this year.”
The Broncos are confident that will be the case.