By Brian Murphy
The big picture is quite clear for the Boise State men’s basketball team.
“The big picture is we want to get to that dance,” junior guard Jeff Elorriaga said after Wednesday night’s critical 77-65 victory against Air Force.
Rather than shield his team from the outside talk, Broncos’ third-year coach Leon Rice has leveled with with players.
“They work 12 months out of the year to put themselves in this position. They need to know where we are in relation to their goals. It’s not a pressure thing. It is here’s where we are, here’s what’s out there, here’s what we can accomplish,” Rice said. “I don’t have a problem saying it.”
The Broncos (17-8 overall, 5-6 in the Mountain West) are in unfamiliar territory. Boise State, which has made five trips to the NCAA Tournament, has never qualified as an at-large selection. It is late February and the Broncos are relevant in NCAA Tournament discussions,on the bubble with five regular-season games remaining.
“With basketball, you play so many games that you don’t want to in July look back and go, ‘Wow that was a really important game and we didn’t play as hard as we could.’ I think it helps them,” Rice said.
It certainly didn’t hurt Wednesday night in what was almost a must-win for the Broncos’ tourney hopes.
The nine-team Mountain West is nearly assured of four berths (New Mexico, Colorado State, San Diego State and UNLV) to the 68-team tournament. Boise State and Air Force are vying to be the fifth team in (barring an upset winner in the conference tournament).
The Broncos have the better profile, but Air Force (15-10, 6-5) defeated Boise State in Colorado Springs in January. A season sweep by the Falcons would have damaged the Broncos’ tournament case considerably.
“This was a crucial game for us and we knew it,” Rice said after the win. “You don’t want to put pressure on it. We have benefited from being in this league, but eventually it comes down to taking care of your own business.”
The Broncos have chances to take care of their own business. Boise State faces Colorado State (March 2), UNLV (March 5) and San Diego State (March 9) to end the regular season. Colorado State and San Diego State visit Taco Bell Arena where the Broncos are 11-1 on the season.
The league provides opportunity after opportunity for Boise State to make history and claim that first at-large selection.
“That’s the beauty of us getting to stay in the Mountain West. It’s a real basketball league and we’re right in the mix,” Rice said. “That’s where you want to be. You want to be relevant in February and that’s where we are.”
Players deflected questions about the NCAA Tournament. The focus is on each game and continuing to get better, said Thomas Bropleh, who had his best game of the season with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting against Air Force. Elorriaga said the league doesn’t offer the chance to look at anything more than the next game.
Having gotten into this position, Rice wants to squeeze every bit of effort out of his team.
“You understand that we’re in the home stretch. This is it. This is where championships are won or lost. This is where postseason things are won or lost. And your effort needs to reflect that,” Rice said. “I’ll give you all of May off. You’ve got now. Be in the moment. Understand how important the moment is.”