Many words can be said about the product that Leon Rice has put on the court for Boise State. As well we many adjectives. Exciting. Frustrating. Emotional. Inspired. Another way to describe the Rice-era at Boise State is a winning one.
It's that description on which people seem to be caught. Alas, the winning part of the whole sports equation is often the most troublesome. A coach, or player, that doesn't do enough of it eventually gets the ax. Sometimes for good reason. If a coach cannot pull his team above the .500 mark, or better, that coach probably is not doing enough. With winning comes certain expectations. As fans, we come to expect that teams will do better and improve, for the most part, year-to-year. Certainly there will be the "rebuilding" years or the years where circumstances and injuries become too much to overcome and a season is plagued with losses.
But for Coach Leon Rice, 2015-16 year was one of great expectation. Coming off a season where the Broncos won the regular season, returned a good core of players, and brought in new blood, this was supposed to be a year of great success. Having been picked second by the Mountain West Conference media there was certainly outside speculation that Coach Rice should have been able to replicate last season's at-large NCAA berth. Having two players picked to the preseason MWC first-team (Drmic and Webb) did not hurt those expectations. Drmic coming back from his ankle surgery and Webb being, well, the best player on the court for the Broncos coupled with up-and-coming Chandler Hutchison and Nick Duncan's shooting, the Broncos had the makings of a good run.
And then the season opened with an odd-duck loss to Montana. Not exactly the start that Bronco Nation had hoped for. For a lot of people, that was probably where the questions at least tickled the back of their minds. Not the best loss, to be sure, but the Griz did win the Big Sky regular season in the 2014-15 season. And the Griz did go on to finish second in the 2015-16 Big Sky regular season with a 14-4 conference record and a 21-12 overall record. Not defending the loss, per se, but the Montana Griz were no slouches.
Overall the out of conference schedule was challenging, but manageable. With an early test at at then #12 Arizona, the Broncos could have either walked away with a great upset, or (what actually happened) a respectable loss. The Broncos had put up a fight, but faded in the second half. Unfortunately that theme seemed to permeate throughout the whole season. Rounding out two more losses in November to Michigan State (to which most picked to at least make the Final Four in the NCAAs) and Arizona, the Broncos just did not have the "it" win, but not necessarily any damning losses.
The month of December, and the first half of January, was a good time for the Broncos. The ten game winning streak that the Broncos enjoyed, that included a win over an eventual #1 seed and Elite Eight Oregon team, was the pure highlight of the season. Solid wins over Colorado State, usual stalwart in Utah State, and over eventual MWC second-place finisher Fresno State would also dot the résumé. The optimism was palpable. With a solid Pac-12 win under their belts, and enough wins in the MWC regular season, the Broncos could have made a decent case for an at-large selection barring something catastrophic in the MWC post-season tournament.
And then the San Diego State game.
The Aztecs were, seriously, on a two-game losing streak to the Broncos when they entered Taco Bell Arena for the first matchup between the two squads. The Broncos actually had the Aztecs' number! But then 1-17 happened. The Broncos only made one three point shot. And the Broncos fell to the Aztecs 56-53 after squandering a paper-thin first half lead of 26-25.
The Broncos never really recovered from that stumble. Dropping gimme games to Air Force and San Jose State. Losing at home to New Mexico and then blowing a big lead at Wise Pies Arena. Losing to a coach-less UNLV squad. A gut-punch of a loss to Colorado State that should have legitimately been a win for the Broncos. And then finally exiting the MWC tournament in the first round to Colorado State.
This season should have been one where the Broncos could have entrenched themselves in the upper-tier of the MWC. An inspired Webb-less win at San Diego showed what potential this team had, even when the best player was out of the game. A whooping of Nevada that saw the re-emergence of Drmic coming back to form on senior night showed that the Broncos had the offensive power to compete.
Despite the rocky season, the Broncos still won 20 games. No NCAA tournament but the season still ended with more wins than losses. While underachieving, on the whole, the Broncos were not without some good wins and the real close opportunity for Drmic to break the all-time Boise State scoring mark. Winning 20 games is a rather tough task to meet.
Boise State has 20+ wins in 4 straight seasons. One of just 9 teams from the 6 western conferences to accomplish the feat.— Boise State Men's BB (@BroncoSportsMBB) March 30, 2016
Despite the disappointing season, Rice has been getting enough attention to warrant opportunities to move on to somewhat "greener" pastures. His value as a hot commodity has not gone unnoticed by those who would like to hire a new coach. After the 2013-14 campaign, Leon Rice interviewed at Washington State. Rice stayed at Boise State, along with a hefty raise. This would only be the beginning.
This year Saint Louis University moved on from a coach, Jim Crews, that did not fit the bill of "winning enough." Rick Majerus, the previous coach who had passed away and famously led the Utah Utes to a fantastic NCAA tournament run, had set the table for the talent at SLU and helped gear the Billikens for success. They would go on to win over 20 games Crews' first two years. Then two disappointing 11-21 seasons happened. One of those situations where if you do not win, you get the ax. And, in this case, it was probably warranted.
And so SLU's coaching search commenced.
Coach Rice interviewed for the opportunity to make more money in a more competitive league, the Atlantic 10. That conference saw three NCAA bids this year versus the Mountain West's one. Coach Rice had the chance to be "the show" in town for that university, not having to play second-fiddle to a football team. There are many legitimate reasons for Rice to have followed through on this opportunity and make a name for himself as a coach who can turn around a program.
He's done it before.
After years of futility under Greg Graham, the Boise State program had experienced much apathy from the fanbase. In Graham's eight years at the helm, he won 20-plus games twice, and went to the NCAA tournament once. Contrast that to Rice who was won over 20 games five out of his six years. Under Rice's watch the team has made the NCAA twice, both with the at-large bid. The one losing season was the school's first year in the MWC where the squad with 13-17.
Putting it bluntly: Leon Rice has made Boise State relevant in basketball again. He has had success and has been able to put really talented, if sometimes spotty, players on the court. By any measure, three of the best Broncos to put on a uniform: Derrick Marks, Anthony Drmic, and James Webb, were because of Rice's recruiting and influence.
After the Dayton loss in the play-in game (at Dayton) last year, Rice had talked about Derrick Marks taking the final shot, even though he was struggling on the floor. He had said something to the effect of "dancing with the one who brought you." In our case, Rice is the one who has brought the program to the level it is now. While this years' losses were disappointing, there are building blocks going forward that can only be expanded and great potential.
Luckily for Boise State, SLU decided to move forward with hiring Travis Ford. It may never be 100% clear as to their decision to go with Ford over any other candidate, but this bodes well for the Broncos. A sigh of relief.
There were many reasons for Coach Leon Rice to go to SLU. Probably as many as reasons to stay at Boise State. Though we can all be disappointed that the season ended the way it did, we need to remember that we are disappointed at all. That the current coach has put something together to be disappointed in. Losing Coach Rice would not be the end of the world. The program will move on and most likely be "ok" going forward. But why settle for "ok" when there is a chance to be great? Coach Rice has put things in place to be great. We just need to have the patience to see it coalesce.
And for Coach Rice to stay.