SEATTLE — Officially, they’ve not played in nearly 20 years. In actuality, Boise State and Washington met in the preseason. And one will end the other’s postseason when they meet Wednesday in the first round of the NIT at Alaska Airlines Arena.
The tying link goes beyond a singular scrimmage. Broncos coach Leon Rice is a Washington native. He grew up in Richland, graduated from Washington State and was a Gonzaga assistant for more than a decade before taking over BSU. Rice and first-year Huskies coach Mike Hopkins have actually become pretty good friends. They developed a relationship and have become a sounding board for one another about their respective teams throughout the year.
“I called him and said, ‘Geez. We must be meant to be together,’” Hopkins said Tuesday. “We started the season together and now we’re going to be in the postseason. He’s a guy who I’ll be friends with for a long time. Loves the game. Loves coaching. Loves the art of coaching. Loves helping people. Loves sharing. That’s what the great ones do.”
Being privy to those talks between Hopkins and Rice might make for interesting fodder although its easy to see why the Broncos (23-8) and Huskies (20-12) have reached the NIT.
Rice and the Broncos were among the most consistent programs in the Mountain West Conference. They went 13-5 in their league and got the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, only to lose to Utah State.
The Broncos did land a No. 4 seed for the NIT but with their venue hosting first round games of the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies are hosting the first official game between the two teams since Dec. 23, 1999.
The Broncos won’t have home court advantage but they do have three distinct strengths that could give the Huskies problems.
Boise State has length and size. Four of the Broncos’ starting five are 6 feet, 6 inches or taller.
And they can shoot from distance. They’re shooting 37.9 percent from 3, ranking 48th out of 351 Division I teams. A little more than 28 percent of their points also come from the 3-point line, which is one of the highest percentages in the nation. Overall, they’re shooting 46.3 percent from the floor.
Finally, there’s rebounding. Boise State grabs 38.3 boards per game (31st in the nation). This will be the third-best rebounding team UW has played this year behind Gonzaga (ranked 10th) and UCLA (ranked 19th).
“I’d say the biggest thing is teams at the beginning of the year and teams at the end of the year are completely different teams,” junior guard Matisse Thybulle said when asked to recall what he remembered about the Broncos.
“They were, from what I remember, a good team when we started this whole preseason stuff. They’ve probably come a long ways, the same way we have. It’s going to be competition no matter what.”
UW has used the 2-3 zone to run teams off the perimeter, which is why they’re good at defending 3-pointers. Opponents are shooting 33.1 percent from 3 and only 20.4 percent of their total points come from 3. Also, around 28 percent of an opposing team’s points come from beyond when they play the Huskies.
All those collective factors put UW among the top 20 percent of college basketball teams capable of defending the 3.
That could play out in one of two ways with NIT rules pushing the 3-point line back to create a deeper shot. It could either benefit UW’s defense or it could play into Boise State’s favor. The Broncos have hit 299 3-pointers this year to set a new single-season school record. A year earlier, they connected on 253 3-point shots.
Size, as it relates to scoring and rebounding, foiled the Huskies in Pac-12 play. Fourteen of UW’s 18 conference games saw players 6-foot-7 or taller lead their team in scoring at a rate of more than 22 points per game.
Washington is averaging 33.1 rebounds this year – that’s next-to-last in the Pac-12. And in the Huskies last three games, they’re only getting 27.3 boards per game.
“I don’t feel like its anything we haven’t seen before,” sophomore center Sam Timmins said. “We’ve played against teams with length and played against good rebounding teams. We’ve played against good shooters. From what we’ve looked at, they kinda have a little bit of all of that.”