New-look Rebels still present big challenges for Broncos (w/video)

When the Mountain West basketball preseason polls came out in October, Boise State and UNLV tied for second. After slow starts, both are 5-3 in conference play, currently tied for fourth. Both have won four of their last five and face off Saturday at 6:05 p.m. MT on CBS Sports Network.

The Rebels brought back familiar faces in Bryce Dejean-Jones and Khem Birch, but most of the team is new — nine players on the roster did not play a game for UNLV last season.

“What we’re seeing is they’re playing some of their basketball of the year right now,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said.

Newcomer Roscoe Smith is averaging 12.0 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, one of 16 players nationally averaging a double-double — a list that includes Boise State senior Ryan Watkins. Birch (6-foot-9, 220 pounds) was last season’s MW defensive player of the year, and has pulled down 9.2 rebounds per game, along with 3.7 blocks per game, where he ranks No. 3 in the nation.

“He’s a guy that can cover up a lot of mistakes,” Rice said.

Boise State is 0-5 all-time at the Thomas & Mack Center, two of those in the conference tournament, the other three coming the last three seasons. Normally excellent at home, UNLV has struggled, going 8-5 on their home floor thus far.

The Rebels’ athleticism and length has often caused problems for the Broncos, but it’s the sort of challenge the team has been looking forward to facing.

“That front line is probably one of the best in college basketball,” Rice said. “… (UNLV coach Dave Rice) has them peaking at the right time.”

Slow starts have hampered the Broncos on the road thus far. They’ve trailed 26-8, 7-0 and 17-4 in their three Mountain West road games at San Diego State, Nevada and New Mexico, respectively.

“We’re trying to be fired up and ready to go so we won’t have to work so hard to knock down a big deficit,” sophomore Mikey Thompson said.

Thompson returns home for Saturday’s game — he attended Canyon Springs High in Las Vegas before coming to Boise State. More than a dozen Thompson supporters were behind the Broncos’ bench last season for his first game back in his hometown. He’s expecting another good contingent Saturday.

“I’m going to have quite a few family members there to help cheer us on,” said Thompson, who is scoring 8.7 points per game. “… it gives my parents and my other family members to see what my teammates have been doing, also, so they can see how much we’ve been progressing.”

RushTheCourt.net recently ranked the 11 Mountain West coaches, and it wasn’t terribly kind to the (unrelated) Rices, ranking Leon Rice ninth and Dave Rice 11th. Check the list here. The criticism of late-game decisions is somewhat fair, but also recall that he got the team in that position to win after trailing against the likes of San Diego State and Iowa State. And if it comes to Derrick Marks, he was a major, major part of wins with second-half heroics against Idaho, Utah and Utah State.

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