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MWC basketball preview: Boise State embraces lofty expectations

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 10th of an 11-part series previewing the University of New Mexico’s 10 Mountain West Conference opponents, and its nonleague opponents. The order of MWC teams published daily in reverse order of the preseason media poll. To see list of all previews, CLICK HERE.

In Jan. 16, 2013, in the Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho, the Boise State Broncos held a 63-61 lead over the visiting New Mexico Lobos with under 1 minute remaining in regulation.

A defensive breakdown – an unfortunately familiar sight for the Broncos a season ago – led to Lobo sophomore Hugh Greenwood easily driving through an open lane for an unopposed layup to force overtime.

UNM won that game, 79-74 in overtime, and went on to another Mountain West title. Boise State, meanwhile, lost four of five games, starting with the UNM loss, and six in a nine-game stretch, ending early in league play any title hopes.

Now, with five starters returning from a Broncos team that still reached the NCAA Tournament, expectations have risen.

“They just knew how to win a game like that,” fourth-year Boise State coach Leon Rice said of UNM, “and we maybe didn’t at that time.”

Given the same situation now, Rice hopes his team would be better prepared to win a close game like the one against UNM.

“You would hope that they’ve been there and the experience helps you there,” Rice said.

He’s not the only one thinking the Boise State experience factor, especially in preseason all-league selections Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic, could pay huge dividends. The Broncos were picked second (tied with UNLV) in the MWC preseason media poll and have been picked by some national writers to unseat the Lobos as league champs.

But don’t mistake Rice’s optimism as a public prediction of a title just yet.

“You hope, in the best-case scenario, you can be relevant in the title hunt,” Rice said. “I think if you had talked to me last year at this time, I would have not thought that was possible. … We’re not a physically imposing type of team. When I look at our team, it’s hard for me to picture. You roll out New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State, you go, ‘Whoa, look at those guys. We don’t look like that.’ ”

There’s no mistaking the Broncos for a defensive juggernaut, but the emphasis this season is to improve on the 43.7 percent shooting the team allowed from opponents in 2012-13.

The offense, on the other hand, isn’t a concern. Boise State returns 92.4 percent of its scoring, including Marks (16.3 points, 3.9 assists per game) and Drmic (17.7 points per game overall and a MWC best 18.8 points per league game).

The return of Jeff Elorriaga, who led the MWC in 3-pointers made and was sixth in the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage, only further solidifies the Broncos as one of the nation’s most dangerous perimeter scoring teams.

Still Rice knows there is a lot left to prove.

“That’s why we came to Boise (is) to build expectations,” Rice said. “You can’t have a good program or good team without expectations. So we’ve embraced them. Our guys have a good attitude about it. They don’t think they’ve arrived. We haven’t. We have a lot of work to do to be in the upper echelon and compete for a title, which is our goal. We have to get a lot better to do that.”

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