Forget football -- Boise State basketball now on national map

Leon Rice and Boise State hope to become more than a one-year wonder. (USATSI)

Leon Rice had a vision.

He wanted to use the blueprint he learned in his 12 years as an assistant at Gonzaga to turn Boise State into one of the premier basketball programs in the Mountain West Conference.

After reaching the CBI in his first season as Broncos head coach in 2011, Rice made major strides last year, leading Boise State to the NCAA Tournament where they lost to La Salle in the First Four.

While he was disappointed by the early defeat in the field of 68, Rice is proud of what his group accomplished and more importantly, is encouraged about what lies ahead.

"All of the things we wanted to build when we took the job we have now," Rice said. "There's expectations and there's excitement. We had some great moments last year. We beat Creighton on the road and we had a very close loss at Michigan State. We made some steps in the right direction. But we've got a lot more we want to accomplish."

After going 21-11 last season, Boise State returns its top six scorers and is expected to be a major player in the Mountain West along with league favorite New Mexico and mainstays UNLV and San Diego State.

The biggest reason for optimism with the Broncos? Their backcourt.

Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are two lethal scorers with size who averaged a combined 34 points per game last season. They also each shot better than 39% from three-point range.

"I'll take those two against anyone," Rice said of Drmic (6-6) and Marks (6-3). "Both can really score and both should improve from last season."

The ability of Drmic and Marks to attack the rim and get into the paint opens up opportunities for this team's unsung presence -- 3-point marksman Jeff Elorriaga. The long-range gunner made 84 shots from deep last season and shot 44.7 percent from behind the arc.

"If you leave him open, you're in trouble," Rice said of the 6-2 Elorriaga.

Junior Igor Hadziomerovic is another experienced returning perimeter player who played over 25 minutes a game last season, and Rice also expects big contributions from sophomore Mikey Thompson and freshman Dezmyn Trent.

"All Trent knows how to do is score," Rice said of the 6-4 freshman. "He's a really good player and I really think Mikey Thompson is one of the keys to our season. Mikey had a really good year last season as a freshman (7.9 ppg), but for our program to take the next step we need a third all-league player to emerge next to Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic. Can Mikey be that guy for us? It's something we're hoping for."

The spacing the Broncos use on offense generally only requires one traditional post player to be on the floor. Boise State lost big man Kenny Buckner to graduation, but 6-8 forward Ryan Watkins returns and should be this team's interior focal point. The 6-9 Watkins put up strong numbers last year as a junior, averaging 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. His role should be augmented this season as a senior.

Rice also expects 6-9 redshirt sophomore Edmunds Dukulis to be a factor in reserve, while 6-8 freshman Nick Duncan is an Australian import who will bring skill to the Broncos' baseline.

"He reminds me of Jeff Elorriaga at 6-8," Rice said of Duncan. "He can really stretch things."

Offensively, Boise State should be devastating. Rice has proven scorers with experience and several guys that can extend the defense with their shot making ability.

The big keys for the Broncos will be Thompson's overall development and how they match up with the opponent.

Rice firmly believes his team would have had a chance to advance in the field of 68 last year if they hadn't been paired against La Salle, another team that featured a four-guard look. When Boise State faced the Explorers, their overall skill and spacing didn't matter as much because they were playing an unconventional team like themselves.

Nevertheless, the buzz around the Broncos program is real.

There will be a trip to Rupp Arena to play Kentucky on Dec. 10 as well as the underrated Diamondhead Classic in Hawaii during Christmas.

Expectations are definitely going to be enhanced going into conference play for a program that isn't used to being in bold print. Boise State is no longer an afterthought -- they're a legitimate threat to be at the top of the Mountain West.

For Rice, that's the only thing in mind.

"We fully expect to compete for a league title," Rice said. "That's our goal."

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