|Boise State has become one of the biggest mid-major surprises of the first month of this season. (US Presswire)|
No one saw it coming, not even Boise State coach Leon Rice.
The Broncos were 13-17 overall last season, with just a trio of victories in Mountain West play, which wound up putting Rice's team in a tie for seventh at the end of the season. Sure, they had given Michigan State all it could handle in East Lansing, coming up one stop shy of having a chance to beat Tom Izzo's Spartans in the final minute.
Sophomore Derrick Marks, a mid-major recruit out of Chicago, had a career-night with 35 points (including 18 straight in the second half), and Boise State established itself as a postseason contender a year or so earlier than expected. This is a team that's now 5-1 with the lone loss coming to Michigan State. It's also a squad led by a pair of sophomores: Marks and 6-foot-6 Aussie Anthony Dmric. The duo is averaging nearly 35 points per game so far this season.
Rice has 10 freshmen and sophomores on his roster. There's just one senior -- and he comes off the bench. He won't lie: He also anticipated this being a growing year with next season, the program's last in the Mountain West (it's headed to the Big West), being the time when the Broncos could compete with the big boys like UNLV and New Mexico.
Rice said his young team made strides late last season, when it nearly knocked off UNLV in overtime and fought San Diego State in the conference tournament, but that it desperately needed a resume victory to prove it could close out a quality team. That's exactly what happened at Creighton.
Marks was inconsistent a year ago as a freshman, erupting against UNLV and then, just days later, laying an egg against Wyoming. Drmic has become more well-rounded after relying heavily on his 3-point shot a year ago. Prior to the game against Creighton, Rice didn't show tape of the previous game, a victory over UC Santa Barbara. Instead, he made them watch the loss to Michigan State again, a game in which the Broncos were in front with five minutes left.
"We came unglued," Rice said. "We have to learn how to score in the red zone. Here, we talk in football terms."
In the Creighton game, the Bluejays cut the lead to 77-75 on McDermott's 3-point play with 2:30 left in the game. But Boise didn't wilt this time. Drmic responded and the Broncos pulled away for a 13-point victory.
"It was huge to close out a really good team on the road," Rice said.
Despite the win, Rice still understands what lies ahead for his young group. UNLV and San Diego State are both Top 25 teams, New Mexico is on the verge of cracking the poll and Colorado State, led by Larry Eustachy, is extremely dangerous.
"We truly thought next year would be the year," Rice said.
Don't sleep on Boise this year, either.