Second Scouting Report: Boise State

Sometimes, your best isn't good enough, and you just tip the cap to the opposition. Air Force played a genuinely terrific basketball game this past Saturday, doing the things it needed to do to win, but Colorado State – one of the top two teams in the Mountain West Conference – was better. The Falcons need to remember how well they played and carry that form to Boise, Idaho.


Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, brackets burn and fortunes tumble. There are few more "bubble-licious" games in college basketball on Wednesday night than this one. This is a classic bubble battleground game between two evenly-matched teams fighting for positioning – not just against each other, but a field of bubble teams. The calculus is clear-cut for Air Force and Boise State in their pursuits of an NCAA tournament ticket: Win this game, avoid bad losses to the Mountain West's bottom-feeders, and snag a victory over one of the elite teams in the conference before the end of the regular season. That combination will put the Falcons and Broncos in the thick of the conversation entering the Mountain West Tournament. The loser of this game, due to the hit it will suffer on its resume, will have to win two games against the top of the MWC to compensate for such a setback. If this isn't a "loser is out of the field" game, it's pretty close. Losing is not a real option for either club. The path to the tournament is going to be too daunting and remote for the team that comes up short in Taco Bell Arena.

BOISE STATE AT-A-GLANCE

Air Force and Boise State are both on the bubble, but for different reasons. Air Force is in this situation because it did nothing in non-conference play, removing some value from a 6-5 mark and a third-place tie in the league standings. Boise State is 4-6 in the Mountain West, and that's why it's on the bubble. Had BSU won at San Diego State and Nevada, it would be on the good side of the bubble – not a tournament lock, but in a dramatically improved position. Boise State won at Creighton in non-conference play. It did lose at Utah, but the win at Creighton remains an eye-catcher for the Selection Committee. If Boise State can get to 8-8 in the Mountain West and win in the quarterfinals of the MWC Tournament, it will get a long look on Selection Sunday. Bubble watchers around the country would generally put Boise State a few pegs ahead of Air Force in the MWC pecking order, but for all intents and purposes, the Broncos and Falcons share the same plot of bubble real estate.

BOISE STATE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Field goal shooting percentage: 46.1. Change: -2.1 percent (48.2 percent on Jan. 19, the last time these two teams met).

Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 39.4. Change: -3.1 percent (42.5 on Jan. 19).

Points per possession: 1.038. Change: -0.034 points (1.072 points on Jan. 19).

Points per possession allowed: 0.986. Change: +0.037 points allowed (0.949 points on Jan. 19).

Two-point field goal percentage defense: 51.7 percent shooting allowed. Change: +0.5 percent (51.2 on Jan. 19).

Starting Lineup

Forward – Ryan Watkins –
Junior, 6-9, 229 2012-13: 8.9 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game

Watkins' scoring is down 0.2 points (9.1 on Jan. 19), and his rebounding is up from 7.3 per game on Jan. 19. Watkins scored 24 points in the last meeting between these two teams, but he's been held in check since then, averaging 6.3 points in his last seven games. He was shut out against New Mexico this past Saturday on a night when the Broncos starved at the offensive end of the floor. Boise State doesn't want Watkins to take too many shots – not with the array of perimeter shooters and creators in the backcourt – but the junior will have to make his presence felt if the Broncos want to knock off the Falcons.

Guard – Derrick Marks – Sophomore, 6-3, 206; 2012-13: 16.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.5 assists per game, 2 steals per game

Marks' scoring is down 0.3 points (17 points even on Jan. 19). His rebounding is down 0.2 boards per game (3.6 on Jan. 19), and his assists have decreased by an average of 0.4 per contest (3.9 on Jan. 19). This has been Boise State's most consistent player by a wide margin in 2013. Marks totaled 17 points against Air Force a month ago, and he's scored at least 16 points in five of the seven games BSU has played since Jan. 19. Marks was 8 for 15 against New Mexico's rugged defense this past Saturday in Albuquerque, racking up 19 points to go along with 7 rebounds. Marks is a strong foul shooter, but he went 2 of 5 at the stripe against New Mexico, and his late miss of a free throw against San Diego State a week ago enabled the Aztecs to nip the Broncos by a point on a Chase Tapley triple with just under three seconds to go. Marks, for all of his production and consistency over the long haul, has wobbled in crunch-time moments. He visibly bears the pressure of a team that so desperately wants to get to the NCAAs… too much, in a certain sense. If Marks and his mates can relax in the final minutes of close games, this team can get over the hump.

Guard – Anthony Drmic – Sophomore, 6-6, 196; 2012-13: 15.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.6 apg

Drmic's scoring has increased by 0.5 points per game (15.3 on Jan. 19). His rebounding average has not changed, and his assists are down 0.2 (2.8 on Jan. 19). Drmic is one of two formidable outside shooters on this team, but the challenge for him is to play well against upper-tier competition. Look at Drmic's last seven games, and you'll see what's meant by that statement. UNLV is a good team, but the Rebels – as Air Force fans and all Mountain West watchers know – are wretched away from home. If you view a home game against UNLV as an "expected win," Drmic has played brilliantly in all four of Boise State's "expected wins" since the Air Force game. He toasted UNLV at home for 22 points and similarly flourished against Fresno State, Nevada (a game Boise was expected to win but wound up losing), and Wyoming. However, against New Mexico, Colorado State, and San Diego State, Drmic has averaged only 9.3 points on 3-of-11 shooting. Air Force allowed 19 points to Drmic the last time these teams met. If the Falcons want to take down the Broncos and vault past Boise in the bubble pecking order, they need to join UNM, CSU, and SDSU as a big-boy defensive team that's capable of locking down Drmic.

Guard – Jeff Elorriaga – Junior, 6-2, 180; 2012-13: 11.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.4 steals per game

Elorriaga's scoring is down 1.9 points (11.9 on Jan. 19). His rebounding is down 0.2 boards (3.5 on Jan. 19), and his assists are up 0.1 (2.2 on Jan. 19). Instructively, he did not play against Air Force when these teams met in Colorado Springs a month ago. He will definitely relish the chance to help his team avenge the Jan. 19 loss that has prevented Boise State from establishing a stronger NCAA tournament portfolio. The key for Air Force with respect to Elorriaga is that it must realize where Boise State's shots are likely to come from. Elorriaga is a gung-ho shooter who will likely take shots away from Watkins and fellow teammate Mikey Thompson. A gambling, scrambling form of defense is not recommended for a team unless it has 10 studs who can be shuttled in and out. (Think of 1994 Arkansas or 1996 Kentucky, teams that like to press for 40 minutes.) Air Force does not want to be undisciplined on defense in the first 10 minutes of this game. With that having been said, the Falcons need to start this game by paying special attention to Elorriaga, so that he does not gain a comfort zone. If he does, the balance of power will likely tip in the Broncos' direction, since this was the weapon they lacked (and could have used) on Jan. 19.

Guard – Mikey Thompson – Freshman, 6-3, 167; 2012-13: 9.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg

Thompson is now a member of the starting five; he was a primary reserve on Jan. 19, when he scored eight points against Air Force, five at the foul line. (He went 1 for 8 from the field on that afternoon.) Thompson has been fairly steady, but at a lower rate of production compared to Marks. He crumbled against Fresno State but flourished against San Diego State. Aside from those two outliers, he's been scoring from 8 to 11 points per game on a regular basis over the past month. With Elorriaga back in the mix, don't expect Thompson to take too many shots. One of the important things to keep an eye on in this game is the way in which Elorriaga and Drmic both respond to defensive pressure. If the two men are effective in rotating the ball, will Thompson and Watkins take and make open shots? If they can't convert the opportunities they get in the first half, Air Force will be able to continue to cheat a bit on defense, focusing on the Broncos' foremost shooting threats. Ultimately, the Falcons hope that they can take away Boise's big guns early in this game and not get punished by the Broncos' role players in the process.

Bench

Rice now uses a seven-man rotation. The two primary reserves are center Kenny Buckner and guard Igor Hadziomerovic. Thompson has taken Hadziomerovic's place in the starting five; Hadziomerovic started against Air Force on Jan. 19. Buckner grabbed 11 rebounds this past Saturday against New Mexico's hefty front line, a superb achievement. Hazdiomerovic averages six points per game and does not look for shots as frequently as his teammates do.

Keys to the Game

1) Give the Broncos a chance to lose.
Boise State has not done a good job this season of closing games. BSU's win over UNLV was a comfortable game that turned into a nail-biter because of missed foul shots. The Broncos wobbled at the foul line late against San Diego State and gave up a game-deciding three on a broken play. Boise State's offense wilted down the stretch against New Mexico. Knowing the way Boise State has performed this season, Air Force must focus on containing the Broncos' shooters early and making sure that the home team does not bust out to a massive lead. The Falcons are much more able to come back from an eight- or nine-point halftime deficit than the Broncos are. Air Force can play the first half to set up the second half, an important point Pilipovich should keep in mind when he gathers his thoughts and talks to his team before tip-off. If this is a one-possession game at the under-four-minute media timeout of the second half, Air Force should like its position (as long as Boise State is not shooting three foul shots at the end of said timeout). Michael Lyons is the best player on the court, a man who can own the final four minutes and grow in stature while Boise State feels the pressure in a game it cannot afford to lose. As long as Air Force is right there at the end, the weight of the occasion will fall more on the shoulders of the Broncos, even though the Falcons need this game just as much.

2) Pound the post and the paint. Ruthlessly attacking Boise State's undersized defense can save Air Force even if the Broncos are hitting shots. Boise State is as weak on defense as it is potent on offense, and what's particularly important to remember is that after getting demolished by Colorado State's size, Air Force – dismantled by 19 points at the foul line against the Rams – should be able to turn the tables at the charity stripe in this contest. Lyons will certainly need to hit a few threes here and there, but a concerted team-wide blitzing of the rim will force every Boise State defender to become that much more responsible for his assignments. If Air Force is committed to attacking the tin, it will get some cheap points and put itself in position to thrive in the final few possessions of what promises to be a nail-biter.

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