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MIKE PRATER: Boise State has one job this week — live up to the hype

By MIKE PRATER,

2023-03-14

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The Boise State basketball team couldn’t get out of town fast enough, and even that was an issue.

Coach Leon Rice and his players are the talk of the town, and frankly, it’s too much happy talk. Or maybe it’s just different.

We all know the dreaded stat, the anchor of depression hanging around this program that’s been desperately trying to bust out for years: The Broncos are 0-8 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, dating back 47 seasons. They had no business winning most of those games. Most weren’t close. Expectations have been modest.

Until now. Definitely different.

Selection Sunday was a time for celebration, and rightfully so after Boise State secured only the third at-large NCAA invite in school history. The Broncos are going dancing for the second straight year. That’s only happened one other time (1993-94). Their success on a budget — in a crazy, money-hungry era of college athletics — should be celebrated.

By Monday, the celebration was too much. Too much confidence. Too much comfort. Too much happy talk from fans, social media know-it-alls, media, myself included.

Collectively, we believe in Boise State beating Northwestern in a first-round game Thursday night in Sacramento — followed by a Saturday prime-time game against UCLA.

We believe, even though Northwestern finished second this season in the Big Ten, and a month ago, beat NCAA No. 1 seed Purdue by six points.

We believe, because Northwestern, despite that second-place finish, only landed a No. 7 seed. A sign that the Big Ten is down this season? In a season where the Mountain West is considered up?

We believe, because Northwestern is not Michigan or UNLV or Louisville or Memphis, all Boise State bullies from previous NCAA Tournaments.

We believe, because Northwestern has a scrappy football reputation and very little basketball history — 1-1 all-time in the NCAA Tournament (both games in 2017).

We believe, because Northwestern doesn’t have an intimidating roster of giant, athletic beasts. It doesn’t produce All-Americans. It doesn’t put players in the NBA.

We believe, because in theory, Boise State should be able to physically survive the first-half beatings it has taken in past NCAA games. The Broncos have been outscored 289-213 in the first half of eight NCAA games; the second half numbers are much more competitive at 315-293.

We believe, because Boise State will put five starters on the court Thursday — all with NCAA Tournament experience. Northwestern has none.

We believe, because Northwestern has lost four of its past five games, even though Boise State has lost three of five.

We believe, because Boise State and Northwestern have a lot in common on the basketball court. And nothing else, which might matter in academics, bank accounts and life, but not for a 40-minute game of hoops.

We believe, because Boise State should have more fans in California, simply based on geography.

Or maybe we believe because of what Max Rice said in the midst of Sunday’s celebration.

“Every year you expect more, and you expect to do more, so I think it’s becoming the norm in this program that we expect to go to the NCAA Tournament,’’ the star player said. “Now, obviously, we expect to win a game in the tournament. We expect to win multiple games in the tournament.’’

I don’t remember him saying that before the Memphis game last year — but this year is different. The vibe is different. It’s exciting — and anxious.

Leon Rice is responsible for a lot of this confidence and comfort talk. He’s always wanting more, but constantly told us this season that his program is in better shape than ever before. Better players. More staff. More resources. More support. Bright future.

We’ve all listened, because Rice has built that credibility through his 13 seasons, so expectations have changed. Boise State fans want football results from their basketball program, and this week’s happy chatter has reflected those feelings.

That’s why Boise State needed to get out of town ASAP to avoid all this suffocating noise — which finally happened Tuesday after 24 hours of waiting for the NCAA to provide charter flight details to Sacramento.

Boise State fan on Twitter: “Northwestern is a winnable game.’’

Boise State fan on Twitter: “This will be my first time watching Northwestern compete in any sport. I guarantee most Northwestern fans can’t say the same thing about Boise State. National brand.’’

Boise State fan on Twitter: “I would much rather play Northwestern than Arkansas.’’

Boise State fan on Twitter: “Boise can absolutely beat Northwestern.’’

Northwestern fan on Twitter: “Me seeing all the experts picking Boise State over Northwestern.’’ It was attached to a GIF of a skeptical man making note of odd behavior.

No doubt, this 2023 NCAA experience is different for Boise State, and the Broncos are facing a massive opportunity in their quest to continue to build this basketball program. Thursday’s game is a must-win for the psyche of the team and its fans, who are tired of asking the same offseason questions every year.

“This is an amazing opportunity,’’ Max Rice said, “being in a good 7-10 (seed) game that you have a chance of winning.’’

The man with the magic touch is right — now is the time for Boise State to win its first NCAA Tournament game.

This time, no excuses.

This time, one beautiful opportunity to turn happy talk into a happy dance.

Mike Prater is the Idaho Press sports columnist who co-hosts Idaho Sports Talk (KTIK 95.3 FM on Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m.) and the Boise State football postgame show (KBOI 670 AM). He is on Twitter @MikeFPrater and can be reached at mikefprater@gmail.com

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