On Thursday night, Boise State men’s basketball coach Leon Rice looked ahead to his next game and said “out of all my years of coaching, I think it’s got to be the most athletic top to bottom team I’ve ever coached against.”
That team is No. 3 Kentucky, and it’s a bit of a step up from the Broncos’ 80-52 win over Carroll College on Thursday. The 8-0 Broncos’ game Tuesday against the Wildcats will be televised on ESPN at 7 p.m. MT with Dave O’Brien and Jay Bilas on the call.
“They’re just getting better and better every game,” Rice said of the 7-1 Wildcats, who start four true freshmen, and a fifth, Marcus Lee, has started four games.
The Wildcats’ four primary freshmen starters all score in double figures (I’ll have a story on them Sunday), but 7-foot sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein has stepped up big in recent weeks. He has scored in double figures in his last four games and is averaging 9.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game this season. He also adds 3.9 blocks per game.
“He can be on the bench and it still feels like he can block your shot,” Rice said.
Kentucky’s Rupp Arena has a capacity of 23,000 — the largest crowd Boise State has ever played in front of is 20,398 at BYU on Dec. 13, 1996. The experienced Broncos, however, have seen some tough environments in the Mountain West and last year at top-15 teams in Creighton and Michigan State.
“You have to get over some things when you’re playing at Kentucky with 23,000 fans, and there’s the ‘Kentucky’ on the front of their jerseys,” Rice said. “… we’ve got to get through that, but the good thing is our guys have played in some of these games before.”
Kentucky will play against No. 20 Baylor on Friday night at 8 p.m. MT on ESPN.
Senior Ryan Watkins, after his 12-point, 14-rebound performance in 22 minutes against Carroll, is now averaging a double-double on the year (10.1 points, 10.4 rebounds per game).
Watkins is the first Bronco since Matt Nelson, from Jan. 20-Feb. 3, 2007 to have 10 or more rebounds in five straight games. It is also the latest a Bronco has averaged 10 or more rebounds since Jason Ellis (10.0 rpg) on Jan. 17, 2004. No Bronco has averaged a double-double in a season since 1971-72.
“Ryan was mad at himself — he missed a few (easy shots) in the first half,” Rice said. “… but great job by Ryan.”
Led by Watkins, Boise State dominated the inside against Carroll, outrebounding the Saints 41-20 and not allowing any second-chance points, this first time the Broncos have done that since 2010.
Consider Tuesday’s game a tad of a step up on the rebounding front. Kentucky is No. 2 nationally in rebounding margin at plus-15.5 per game, led by freshman Julius Randle’s 12.6 rebounds per game.
“They’re probably one of the best rebounding teams, and it’s like me in the driveway with my 9-year-old son sometimes — there’s just nothing he can do about it,” Rice said.
Jeff Elorriaga dominated another NAIA team Thursday with 18 points on six 3-pointers. He’s averaged 22.0 points per game the last two seasons against NAIA schools — he had 30 last season against Corban, 14 against Walla Walla, 26 this season against Simpson, and his 18 on Thursday against Carroll. The walk-on from Portland didn’t even get recruited by NAIA schools.
“He’s mad they didn’t recruit him,” Rice said with a laugh.
Junior Anthony Drmic missed his first game since his freshman year when he fell sick during shootaround Thursday. It snapped a streak of 56 consecutive starts, though Rice said he “tried to pull a Willis Reed” and play. Rice kept him home, not wanting to make anything worse or get anyone else sick before Kentucky. He said Friday that Drmic will be good to go Tuesday in Lexington.
“If he’s not getting on the plane, I’m not getting on the plane,” Rice said.