BOISE — It may only be 900 fans inside a 12,500-seat arena, but Boise State men's basketball coach Leon Rice expects an electric atmosphere Wednesday night when the Broncos face Utah State at 7.
Boise State announced Tuesday that around 900 fans will be permitted to attend both Wednesday and Friday's games against the Aggies at ExtraMile Arena.
While the capacity will be less than 10 percent full due to social distancing protocols, Rice expects those fans lucky enough to be in attendance to make it sound like a packed house.
"I have a feeling it will," Rice said.
ExtraMile Arena would likely have been packed and rocking all season long with Boise State off to one of its best starts in program history. But until now no fans have been allowed for any home games this season, aside from the dozen or so family members of players and staff that attended the UNLV games.
With fans eager to see one of the top teams in program history for the first time on Wednesday — and with first place on the line in the Mountain West — it figures to be a fun change from the empty arenas the Broncos have played in all season long.
“It gets your heart pumping,” Rice said. “It gets exciting. It’s been a long season of going to empty gyms and until you’re in there and experience it, you don’t really understand what I’m talking about. We had 11 fans at the last game and I think it made a difference, so I’m excited to have an atmosphere. These guys deserve it.
“It comes at a perfect time and hopefully it will be a great college basketball game with two really good teams. It’s neat that we can have some people get to see this.”
Boise State put tickets on sale Tuesday. Bronco Athletic Association members and season ticket holders received email instructions about purchasing tickets, which are being sold based on priority point rankings. Tickets range from $30-40 per game.
Boise State also will make 200 tickets available to students for each game, and the cheerleaders are expected to attend for the first time all season as well. It's unclear if the band will be there.
Ironically enough Utah State is the only team in the Mountain West that has had fans at home games for much of the season. The Aggies have had 1,600 fans at home games in Logan.
This will be Utah State's first road game with fans in the stands.
"Obviously they'll be pumped and they'll be excited," Utah State coach Craig Smith said. "I think it will be exciting for everybody involved. Those (900 fans), it will feel like that times 10 in terms of the atmosphere, so it should be an exciting, spirited atmosphere.
"In our league we haven't experienced that, so it will be different."
No concessions will be available. Patrons will not have to provide a negative COVID-19 test, but will have to pass a temperature check and a health screening prior to entry.
The Broncos had tried to move Wednesday's game to the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa in order to have around 1,500 fans attend. Utah State denied the request, as did UNLV for home games last week.
Late last week, the Idaho State Board of Education, in conjunction with the Governor's Office, announced that Idaho's four-year public universities could have up to a 40% capacity for indoor athletic events for the remainder of the 2020-21 winter sports season as long as fans wore masks and were socially distanced.
But Central District Health said a current health order for Ada County limiting gatherings to 50 people superseded the State Board's announcement and said it wouldn't "endorse" Boise State putting more than 50 fans inside ExtraMile Arena.
Boise State submitted a plan to CDH for review, which it did on Tuesday morning.
"CDH staff reviewed BSU’s plan and responded today to let them know they did a good job of covering all the important aspects of operation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic," CDH spokesperson Christine Myron said. "We also let them know that we did not have any questions or concerns regarding their plan as submitted. As a reminder, our review of such safety plans does not equate CDH’s endorsement of gatherings given the public health order in place in Ada County."
Despite Central District Health's involvement, Boise State is still technically violating a public health order by allowing more than 50 fans.
"This is a decision that has been vetted by health experts, and one we are comfortable making,” Dickey said. “As we have evaluated every possible opportunity, the health and safety of our student-athletes has been our top priority, and it always will be. Our health and wellness team has tackled the challenges of COVID phenomenally well over the course of this past year, and there isn’t a plan we have worked on where the health and safety of all competitors wasn’t at the forefront of our decision-making process.
Central District Health's Board of Health will discuss and vote on potential changes to the current health order during a meeting Friday at 8:30 a.m.
It's a huge series for Boise State (16-4, 12-3 MW). The Broncos trail Utah State (14-5, 11-2 MW) by one game in the loss column for first place in the Mountain West standings.
“These guys have done a tremendous job to give us this privilege to play these games,” Rice said of the first-place battle.
Utah State is led by 7-foot-1 center Neemias Queta, an NBA prospect who is averaging 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Virginia transfer Anthony Marco is averaging 11.2 points per game, while Justin Bean (10.1 ppg), Brock Miller (9.8 ppg) and Rollie Worster (9.6 pgg) help provide a balanced attack.
“They’re a great team, no doubt about it,” Rice said. “They’ve gotten better and better as the year has gone on. I’ve watched them all year and they have great players and a great coach. We’ve had great battles with them. They’ve only played one game in 21 days and the team they are with the time to prepare, that makes you a little apprehensive.”
But now the Broncos will have the home crowd behind them for the first time all season. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
“I’m just excited for it,” Rice said. “I’m excited for our guys. It will give them positive juice. You want it to be closer to what college basketball is. It’s exciting for them to have this opportunity to play in front of some people.”
The game Wednesday will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network, while Friday will be on FOX Sports 1.