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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 8 Boise State Broncos

The Broncos look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

Nevada v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

2019-2020 Record: 20-12 (11-7 MWC)

Key Returning Players: Derrick Alston, Jr. (17.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.1 APG), RayJ Dennis (4.1 PPG, 1.8 APG), Abu Kigab (11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG),

Key Losses: Alex Hobbs (8.3 PPG, 2.2 APG), Justinian Jessup (16.0 PPG, 39.7 3FG%), RJ Williams (12.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG)

Key Newcomers: Emmanuel Akot (Arizona), Mladen Armus (East Tennessee State), Devonaire Doutrive (Arizona), Lukas Milner (JuCo), Marcus Shaver (Portland), Naje Smith (JuCo)

Picked to finish second in the Mountain West, the Boise State Broncos bring back two double-digit scorers and an intriguing cast of newcomers to a solid team a year ago. While Boise State head coach Leon Rice has won 60.7% of his games and had two players get picked in the NBA Draft, this year’s team appears to be the most talented group he has ever coached.

At first glance, the Broncos appear to be the Mountain West’s spiritual successor to Eric Musselman’s transfer-heavy Nevada teams. They’re led by a talented, NBA-caliber forward in Alston. Six transfers will suit up for Rice for the first time this season, including a pair of Power 5 teammates and a bucket-getting guard from Portland. The Broncos are also coming off a season in which they pulled off an improbable second-half comeback in conference play.

Yet that comparison is the ceiling for the 2020-21 squad. Although the Broncos notched wins over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams BYU and Utah State last season, bad losses to Air Force, UNLV and New Mexico left them clinging to an NIT bid at last season’s abrupt end. Boise State was good, but not great, boasted top-100 units on both sides of the ball, and needed an improbable comeback against Utah State to get a marquee MWC win. Without that comeback, the Broncos would’ve finished at the bottom half of the conference.

But given Rice’s consistent coaching — he’s won 20 games in eight of his 10 seasons — returning two of last year’s top four scorers and upgrading at positions of need, the Broncos should break through this year. Barring anything drastic, Boise State should be a postseason team. Whether that’s the NIT or the NCAA remains to be seen.

Key Non-Conference Games

Like most college basketball teams, Boise State’s non-conference schedule is far from finalized. Right now, Boise State’s two best games according to The D1 Docket are at Houston and fellow Other Top 25 team BYU.

3 things to watch:

Can Derrick Alston be Boise State’s next NBA prospect?

In a word, yes.

A former walk-on turned Julius Erving preseason watch list selection, Derrick Alston is one of the best success stories in the sport. His rise has been meteoric: As a freshman, Alston averaged 0.6 PPG in 2.4 MPG, only to follow that up by averaging 13.4 PPG in 27.9 MPG as a sophomore. Now listed as 6’9, 190 pounds, Alston is an oversized shooting guard who scores easily off the dribble, connects on 35.7% of his threes and draws plenty of fouls.

Oh, and he’s got plenty of tricks up his sleeve too:

Sure, every play of Alston’s isn’t a trick shot off the backboard, but his nimbleness at his size sets him apart. His quickness off the dribble and ability to switch gears as he hurtles towards the basket make him one of the toughest assignments in the Mountain West.

Turns out, bringing back the Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year to a team that won 20 games last season raises expectations quite a bit. Who knew?

The transfer situation

For every transfer-heavy success story, there’s a UTEP, a South Alabama, a New Mexico or, to a lesser extent, a UC Santa Barbara, which has rode a bunch of transfers to three-consecutive 20-win seasons with zero postseason berths to show for it. As enticing as transfers seem on paper, the results boil down to one simple truth: having a bunch of transfers doesn’t mean they’re going to be good.

But Boise State’s transfer class is built to replace many of last season’s flaws.

A pair of 6’10 newcomers — Mladen Armus and Lukas Milner — will be immediate contributors in Boise State’s thin frontcourt. The Broncos weren’t a bad defensive team last season, but opponents made 54.9% of their shots inside the arc, per KenPom. Rim protection was also an issue; Boise State’s block percentage of 4.2% was 351st in the nation. Neither of these statistics boded well for the Broncos last year, as they shared a conference with players like Neemias Queta (who returns this season), Nico Carvacho and Yanni Wetzell. Plus Armus, who averaged almost as many rebounds (7.7) as he did points (8.0) in his final season at East Tennessee State, will be invaluable to replace one of the Mountain West’s leading rebounders, RJ Williams.

Additionally, Boise State will have to navigate life without the Mountain West’s best career three-point shooter (and new Golden State Warrior), Justinian Jessup.

Replacing a career 40.8% three-point shooter is easier said than done, yet a proven scorer like Portland transfer Marcus Shaver (14.8 PPG, 35.9 3FG% as a sophomore) is a step in the right direction. Although scouting Shaver in the Pilots’ downright tepid offense could be challenging, Shaver was one of the few bright spots during his short tenure at Portland. While he might not be the three-point specialist that Jessup was, Shaver can play on or off the ball, get to the free throw line often and was a top-20 scorer in the WCC in both of his seasons at Portland.

Versatility and length

Not to bury the lede, but former Arizona five-star recruit Emmanuel Akot could be Boise State’s point guard this season.

That’s right. Akot, a 6’8 small forward in Sean Miller’s offense at Arizona, could run an offense featuring a 6’6 wing (Kigab), a 6’9 wing (Alston), and possibly two big men 6’10 or taller (Armus, Milner, 6’11 freshman Burke Smith).

Don’t believe it? Rice told B.J. Rains of the Idaho Press about it in a Nov. 18 article:

“The one thing I love about him is when you have those big guards that have the versatility to play four different positions, that makes them harder to guard,” [Rice] said. “That’s what I’ve seen with him. And now I have two of those guys with that kind of size and athleticism.

“He’s really developed as an offensive player in the last 12 months. He’s shooting the ball at a high level right now and he distributes it. He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades guy because he can score inside, outside, midrange. He gives us the versatility when you can have him and [Derrick Alston]. That makes us hard to guard.”

Even if returners like RayJ Dennis or the aforementioned Shaver end up running the point in the long run, the Broncos could challenge San Diego State for the conference’s biggest, longest lineup. Throw in 6’7 wing Naje Smith — a reigning first-team All-NJCAA selection from Cochise College with a 7’1 wingspan — off the bench, and this team could be tough to score on. And given Rice’s tendency to use eight or nine-man lineups, these theoretical lineups could come to fruition.

X-Factor

Abu Kigab

For the first half of last season, junior guard Abu Kigab gave Boise State’s offense a much-needed shot in the arm.

The midseason transfer from Oregon, who had scored in double-figures just twice in 45 games as a Duck, set a career high of 17 points in his first game as a Bronco. In his home opener, Kigab had a 33-point, 11-rebound double-double. Small sample sizes be damned, Kigab was red-hot going into conference play, averaging 16.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG and shooting 46.7% from three in his first four games.

While Kigab was Boise State’s best scoring guard not named Justinian Jessup, his efficiency dipped down the stretch, in part due to injuring his hip against San Jose State. Even though he missed only two games, Kigab couldn’t quite find his footing when he returned to the lineup; he averaged 7.7 PPG on 36.1% shooting in his final seven games.

Now healthy, Kigab should step in and be the second scoring option the Broncos need. His ability to finish at the rim compliments Alston well, plus further refinement of his midrange game gives Boise State yet another dimension to its multifaceted offense. Someone has to fill Jessup’s void; Kigab should be that guy.