As normal folks are gearing up for the holiday season, Wisconsin is starting to enforce a "no cupcake" diet on its schedule. With the exception of UAB next Wednesday, the No. 3 Badgers will face six Top 100 opponents from this past Wednesday (Green Bay) through Dec. 6 (Marquette). After looking impressive in a 3-0 start, the team might finally get to flex a little muscle in some closer games.
A matchup with Boise State (3-0) continues the streak Saturday night. The Broncos are one of the favorites out of the Mountain West Conference this season after narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament a year ago. They have already shown easy-season mettle by winning a game on the road, one on a neutral court and an overtime game at home -- who else can say that?
Boise State boasts a couple of top-notch perimeter threats in Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks and has at least two legitimate 3-point threats to stretch the Badger defense. The question is what the Broncos can do to slow Wisconsin's big men. Jeremy Mauss, founder and editor of Mountain West Connection, has the scoop on Boise's "other" sport and all things MWC.
B5Q: Our readers are familiar with the rise of the Boise State football program ("why you spurn us Chris Petersen?"), but much less knowledgeable about where the hoops program sits in the pecking order out west. Give us some background on how the basketball program has developed and what kind of mindshare it has among the Broncos fans.
Mountain West Connection (Jeremy): For the longest time the Boise State basketball was nothing more than an afterthought, but when head coach Leon Rice came on the scene the program has gone to unprecedented heights. Rice has three seasons of 20-plus wins and the only lowlight was the first year moving from the WAC to the Mountain West where the team was not very good and finished seventh in the league. Rice quickly became acquainted to the new league and won back-to-back 20-win seasons plus a NCAA Tournament berth in 2013.
With the taste of the NCAA Tournament bid two years ago, more was expected, and while last year the team still won 21 games they elected to not pay to enter the CBI or CIT after being shutout of the NIT. A good portion of the core is back from the NCAA tournament team, starting with Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks.
B5Q: The Mountain West Conference has some decent basketball tradition, but realignment is always driven by football. Now that the smoke has cleared, I'm curious how you think the MWC fared from strictly a basketball standpoint?
MWC: Basketball wise the Mountain West kind of took a hit. Utah had fallen off the map real bad after losing Rick Majerus so losing Utah hurt but not too much since the Utes were not living up to their dominance they exuded in the 1990s. BYU was a good team and they always seem to be on the bubble, at worst, for making the NCAA Tournament.
But San Diego State has turned it around with Steve Fisher and New Mexico and UNLV have kept up their history of being very good teams. So the losses of Utah and BYU have not hurt that bad. Colorado State improved with Tim Miles and Larry Eustachy has done a very good job to keep them in the top of the league. Then there is Utah State. They were dominant in the Big West and WAC but the transition to the Mountain West has been tough, as it should be since this is their third league in a decade.
The league is not a power league like the Big Ten or ACC, but in some years it can be better than the Pac-12. Basically, it's in the same neighborhood as some of the power conferences and at worst right there with the Atlantic 10.
B5Q: And with 11 teams, has the conference considered biting the bullet and adding two league games for a truly balanced round-robin schedule? (aka: Bo Ryan's dream)
MWC: The league did add two games by going from from 16 to 18 league games but the big deal is the unbalanced schedule. The bigger issue is that sometimes teams would play the same opponent twice within a 10-day period and some teams would miss the better teams. However, the league did a pretty good job of making sure that who is perceived to be the better teams don't end up playing the likes of San Jose State or Fresno State twice. That is a smart move to help with the RPI and NCAA Tournament berths for the league. Some coaches are not keen on it but this is the second year of the extra games.
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B5Q: Leon Rice was a Gonzaga assistant for over a decade before taking the job in Boise, so he's accustomed to winning. He's guided the Broncos to at least 21 wins in three of his first four seasons. What's his approach as a head coach? What offensive and defensive schemes can Wisconsin fans expect to see?
MWC: So far this year the team has played down to opponents but they still have won their first three games. Defense has been a priority for the Broncos this past off-season and it has been hit or miss this year. It has been hit or miss this year -- just look at the Montana game where the defense didn't show up until the second half of the Broncos comeback. (Ed. note: Boise State won 72-67 in double overtime.)
The team doesn't live or die by the three-point shot but the offense likes to shoot the ball from beyond the arc as a primary way to get points, and if their shooting is rolling then that makes the Broncos a tough out.
B5Q: Six-foot-six Aussie Anthony Drmic is the star scorer on the team, and really the only seasoned veteran on the frontline. What kind of problems will the senior forward pose for the Badgers??
MWC: First of all, he will not be intimidated since Drmic has spent multiple off-seasons training with the Australian national team, so whatever is thrown his way, he has probably seen it and by even better talent than even what Wisconsin has. He is not afraid to shoot the ball from beyond the arc and shoots close to 40 percent from beyond the arc in his time at Boise State. For being only 6'6 he rebounds reasonably well and pulls down around five per game.
Drmic has been the leader of this team and leading scorer for the past three seasons for the Broncos, and has no worries about taking the big shot. His defense still needs work and that makes him somewhat of a liability on that end of the court.
B5Q: Senior Derrick Marks has been up and down in his two games since returning from a brief suspension. I'm not sure if you'd consider him the primary point guard, but I do get the sense that he's the engine that makes the Broncos go -- is that accurate? Can he give the Wisconsin guards fits off the pick-and-roll?
MWC: Derrick Marks has been the other key player along with Anthony Drmic the past few years, and he is a key cog in leading the Boise State offense. He has been limited in minutes in the first two games but he should be very close to his regular amount of playing time.
Marks is definitely a scorer but he is more of a mid-range shooter who if given just enough space can sink pretty much any jump shot within the arc. He is also a solid defensive player and can be a pain for opposing guards and routinely has multiple steals per game in his career at Boise State.
Plus, as you mentioned he is a team leader and having him back for this Wisconsin game, and likely at his full minutes, could make the difference.
B5Q: What's the ceiling for this Boise State team? Will we see them in the field of 68?
MWC: I think Boise State is very capable of making the NCAA Tournament, likely in the First Four or one of the last teams into the field of 64. Last year the team did not perform as people expected, but they have the talent to finish in the top four in the Mountain West and that has proven to be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.
Thank you Jeremy for taking time to provide us with a Boise State rundown. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyMauss or @MWCConnection. Wisconsin and Boise State tip off laaaate Saturday night, starting at 9 pm with coverage on BTN.
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