A viewing of the last two overtimes of the WAC title game while on the phone and with the television muted was about the extent of my Boise State knowledge when I saw their name pop up opposite ours on Sunday. But thanks to the magic of ESPN360, I've been able to catch the Broncos in action against both New Mexico State and Hawaii, and gain a little bit more insight into who they are and what they're going to try to accomplish on Friday night.
First of all, let's look at what these guys do well:
The statistics do not lie in this case. During every second of this game, Boise State is going to have at least four guys on the floor (more on who those guys are later) who are highly capable of knocking down open shots from the outside. The fact that they have attempted 673 three-pointers and still rank second in the country in field goal percentage (50.9%) speaks to their accuracy from deep.
But, like just about any other team in the country, the Broncos are exponentially less dangerous when their shots are being challenged. Since defense is more or less optional in the WAC, BSU has been able to put up staggering offensive numbers for the better part of the season. They do not have the big guards with quick releases like Jeremy Hazell or Steve Novak, so as long as Louisville plays as focused and as hard on the defensive end as it has all season (sans Seton Hall), these guys should have a harder time making shots from deep than they have all season.
2. Share the ball
Boise State's number one offensive option is always going to be to get out quickly in transition and try to get a cheap hoop or a wide open look from three, but when their opponent stops the ball and they're forced to ease into their halfcourt set, they do a really nice job of moving the rock around. While they will have Larry and Nelson both start in the post from time-to-time, BSU typically goes with a four out, one in motion offense, where the guy who passes then cuts to the basket, and then comes back out to the perimeter on either baseline. It's not that they're particularly proficient when it comes to making the high degree of difficulty pass, they simply move the ball around and reverse it so quickly that the defense eventually becomes disoriented and loses a guy in the corner or underneath the basket.
Of their 968 made field goals, 590 have been accompanied by an assist, and the Broncos are averaging 17.9 dimes a game. By comparison, Louisville has accumulated 474 assists, and is averaging 14.8 per game. This is a high-scoring, up-tempo basketball team, but it's also one that isn't going to force the issue once it's been slowed down. A lights-out shooter is worthless without a ball in his hands, and part of the reason Boise State has had such a successful season has been its ability to locate the open man more times than not.
3. Score in transition
I alluded to this earlier, but if you take an extra second to say something to an official because you think you got fouled on a shot attempt, there's a solid chance that it's going to cost your team three points on the other end. Off of a rebound, off of a steal, off of a made shot, it doesn't matter; when the Bronco guards get their hands on the ball it's going to be on their half of the floor an instant later. The 10-20 points a night they've gotten from opponents either being lazy or simply forgetting that they're playing a team that's going to push for 40 minutes has likely helped the Broncos capture seven or eight games that they would have lost otherwise.
4. Win close games
BSU had four games go to overtime this season, and the Broncos won all four. And even though they didn't handle things particularly well (or even moderately well) down the stretch against New Mexico State, they did win, and that can do wonders for the psyche of a team on the verge of pulling off a monumental upset.
5. Be old
The Broncos start four seniors and a sophomore.
And now a look at a few of the things BSU doesn't do so well:
This is another area where the statistics don't lie. For whatever reason, Boise State does not seem to bring near the same level of effort when they don't have the ball as when they do. They play man-to-man almost exclusively, but with the exception of Reggie Larry, all of the guys in blue and orange have a real hard time keeping their guy in front of them. Also, their guards don't do a good job of getting over the top of screens, and their post defenders are terrible at recovering after hedging. This means that a player like David Padgett - who rocks the pick and slip as well as any big man in the country - could be poised for a big day.
In both of the games I watched, the Broncos were going up against teams that didn't shoot the ball particularly well, and therefore they played an extremely sagging man that dared their opponents to beat them from the outside. Greg Graham (not that Greg Graham) briefly implemented a zone against Hawaii when the Rainbows were going through a particularly cold stretch from the outside, which leads me to believe that he wouldn't hesitate to do the same thing against the streaky Cardinals.
Louisville presents all sorts of mismatches for Graham's team, and his best bet might be to just pack it in and make the Cards prove that they can make shots with nobody guarding them.
2. Handle pressure
There is not much pressing done in the WAC, and that's probably a good thing for a Boise State club that doesn't have guards who handle halfcourt traps or token ball pressure particularly well. Despite playing against teams that aren't known for their defensive intensity, the Broncos have turned the ball over 20 times or more in two of their last three games, and in three of their last seven. Against the team on their schedule whose style is likely the most comparable to Louisville's - Siena - BSU gave the ball away 20 times and lost by 23 on their home floor. We'll talk more about the individuals who will be most affected by the Cardinal pressure a bit later.
3. Limit second chance opportunities
Not only does Boise State struggle to find open shooters and guard people one-on-one, they also have a hard time keeping opposing teams from getting second cracks around the rim. The Broncos didn't play a schedule chock-full of teams loaded with giants, but in three games against the squad with likely the WAC's most intimidating frontcourt - New Mexico State - they surrendered 14, 18 and 24 offensive rebounds. If they're going to make Louisville take shots from the outside, they can't let Padgett, Clark and Williams get in position to snatch the ball when it comes off the rim and put it back in for an easy deuce.
4. Be big
The Bronco frontline runs a respectable 6-9, 6-7, 6-6, but the 6-7 guy spends as much time in the paint as you and I, and the 6-9 guy isn't anywhere near thick enough to bang with the likes of Padgett, Caracter and Clark.
5. Be deep
Their five starters all average more than 28 minutes per game, and after that there isn't a player on the roster who sees better than 15.1 a night.
6. Shoot free-throws
Which is surprising for a team that shoots so well from every other spot on the floor. As a team, Boise State shot just 65.3% from the stripe during the regular season, good for seventh place in the nine-team WAC. It certainly doesn't help that the two Broncos who get to the line far more than any of their other teammates - Reggie Larry and Matt Nelson - both shoot under 65%.
7. Have NCAA Tournament experience
Senior center Matt Nelson - a transfer from Eastern Washington - is the only player on BSU's roster who has ever taken the floor in an NCAA Tournament game.
All right, time to take a look at these guys individually:
Reggie Larry F, 6-6 (19.6 ppg/9.3 rpg)
The first-team All-WAC performer and owner of the school's single-season scoring record is as good as advertised. He can beat you off of the dribble, he can finish around the tin, he can hit the mid-range shot, and he's shooting 43.5% from three. He's averaging 25.2 ppg over Boise State's last five games, and is coming off of a 31-point performance in the WAC title game.
Larry is easily Graham's most athletic player, and perhaps in accordance, his best defender. He's the one Bronco with the body to bang down low, and that's something he's not afraid to do. Larry has pulled down ten or more rebounds 12 times, and he's the team's runaway leader in blocks with 35, and runner-up in steals with 47. He also does a great job of staying out of foul trouble, getting whistled for more than three only once.
He's just 6-6 so you'd think his numbers would dip against teams with imposing front lines, but two of the smaller teams on BSU's schedule - Siena and Hawaii - were the only ones to keep him below ten points. He's gotten his against just about everybody this season, and my guess is that he'll continue the trend on Friday night, even if it does occur in a Jerel McNeal fashion ("Oh my God, when the hell did he score 18 points?").
One last note on Larry: he is the No. 1 option on every single one of Boise's inbounds plays from the baseline. Against a team that has struggled from time-to-time with its inbounds defense, that might be something to look for.
Matt Nelson F, 6-9 (15.6 ppg/7.3 rpg)
His 232-pound frame doesn't make him look particularly daunting, but Nelson is actually a very skilled post player who can score with either hand. The lone non-threat from beyond the arc, he's the "one in" in Boise's four out, one in set. He's great at running the floor, and uses his superior athleticism to beat opposing big men down the court and get cheap points in transition. He's also a solid passer who ranks fourth on the team in assists with 68.
Nelson is far less effective on the other end, however. His defensive struggles against moderately talented big men were on full display Saturday, as NMSU freshman Herb Pope hit 9-of-12 shots and scored 20 points, while his frontcourt mate Hatila Passos chipped in 15.
Since Nelson can't handle him on his own, David Padgett will likely be double-teamed the instant one of his teammates looks like they might be thinking about throwing him the ball. This means that Padgett is going to have pass the ball much better than he did against Georgetown and Pitt, and that the recipient of those passes is going to have to take advantage of the open space.
I'm also going to go out on a limb and say that Nelson will be the player U of L fans will find it easiest to dislike. He plays hard, he comes off sort of cocky, and he thinks he gets fouled 750 times a game.
Tyler Tiedeman F, 6-7 (14.0 ppg/3.4 rpg)
If Louisville does lose on Friday night, then this is the name that will undoubtedly be haunting you for the rest of your life. When he's left open from behind the arc, Tiedeman is as close to a sure thing as there is in college basketball. He's taken 166 three-pointer this season, and knocked down 82 of them, good for 49.4%. But if you can get a hand in his face or force him to take a shot from two or three steps behind the line - he doesn't have particularly great range - he's about three times less dangerous.
Tiedeman's not a player who can take any one of our guys off of the dribble, so there's no excuse for anyone guarding him or in his general area to honor his bounce with a couple of extra inches. If he hits four or five (or God forbid more) triples, then it will have been due in extremely large part to laziness or lack of focus by our guys.
On the other end of the floor, Tiedeman is - to put it bluntly - an awful defender. My guess is he will check T-Will, which means he'll likely be standing at the block and daring him to take the outside shot all night long. If he isn't, then there's no excuse for Williams not to have eight dunks by halftime.
Anthony Thomas G, 6-0 (8.6 ppg/2.4 ppg)
Here is, in my eyes, the real weak-link on this team. If Boise had a point guard who could adequately handle Louisville's pressure for 40 minutes, then I'd be about twice as nervous about Friday night's game as I am right now.
Obviously, I don't think Thomas is that player.
It's not that he doesn't have the athleticism or the ball-handling skills, it's just that (cue coach speak) his decision making is highly questionable. Thomas - a sophomore and the lone non-senior in the starting lineup - does not react well to pressure, either in the halfcourt or against the press. His first instinct when presented with a trap seems to be to pick up his dribble, jump, and then make a plan from there. He's turned the ball over 89 times this season - including 14 times in the last three games - and the scary thing for Bronco fans is that he hasn't faced many pressing teams, let alone pressing teams with the length and athleticism that Louisville brings to the table.
He's not quite the outside shooter that his backcourt comrades are, but he's still hitting a respectable 33% (34-of-103) from three. Because of his athleticism, Graham generally is willing to accept the bad that comes with Thomas' good, and lets him lead the charge on the break. He leads the team with 137 assists, a solid chunk of those coming in transition. He's also started a number of fast-break opportunities himself with a team-high 48 steals.
If Thomas miraculously handles the pressure well and plays under control for nearly every second he's on the floor, then the Cards could be in trouble. If he plays like the guy in the WAC Tournament who handed out only 12 assists and gave the ball away 14 times, then the opposite will more than likely be true.
Matt Bauscher G, 6-3 (9.4 ppg/3.5 rpg)
Sure Tiedeman is the best pure shooter on the team, but he isn't the hottest. That honor belongs to former walk-on Matt Bauscher, who hit 9-of-11 three-pointers in three conference tournament games last week.
Bauscher is the secondary ballhandler on the team, and he slides over to point guard when Thomas is taken out of the game. He's not as athletic or naturally gifted as Thomas, but he's more steady, and less likely to throw the ball into the third row when trapped. He's a bit better at creating his own shot than Tiedeman, but he certainly shouldn't be capable of pulling off a crossover, step-back, splash combination on any of our players.
Like Tiedeman, Bauscher struggles defensively. He's especially susceptible to backdoor cuts. If he's guarding Jerry Smith, then this is something our point guards need to be constantly aware of, because Bauscher will likely be asked to play Smith very closely, making him highly vulnerable to a hard cut.
Paul Noonan F, 6-7 (4.9 ppg/1.3 ppg)
(Note: I will not be making a Caddyshack joke, so if you were looking forward to one, feel free to take your hopes down a notch)
One of the few bench players that Graham uses is Noonan, a 6-7 freshman apt to become the new Tyler Tiedeman once the current Tyler Tiedeman graduates. If he checks into a game, then it's highly likely that you're not going to see him take a shot from inside the arc. He's a fixture in the waning seconds of tight games, since his 86.5% stroke from the free-throw line is the best on the team.
Mark Sanchez F, 6-7 (3.1 ppg/2.5 rpg)
Sanchez has seen his minutes increase at the tail end of the season, and hit double-digits for the first time in his career with a 14-point performance against Hawaii on March 2. Despite that outburst, his main purpose is to grab rebounds, make wide-open lay-ups, and most importantly, give Larry or Nelson a breather.
I'm just going to say what all of us already know: this is not the most difficult first-round opponent that Rick Pitino has faced during his time at Louisville. In fact, I would go so far as to say that only the 2003 Austin Peay team was a less difficult opening tilt.
Boise State can shoot it, there's no doubt about that, and a good shooting team can beat just about anyone on a given night. But the Broncos haven't seen anywhere near the level of defense that Louisville is going to presumably bring on Friday night, and whether or not they can still manage to put up such gaudy numbers is a bit of a mystery. They like to get up and down, and that certainly isn't going to change now, but if they're so fast and so loose that they end up spotting the Cardinals 16-20 cheap points, then they're obviously going to be in for a rough night.
My guess is that Greg Graham is going to pack his defense in pretty tight, and make Louisville's guards beat his team from the outside. The size discrepancy is going to prevent Boise State from shutting down Padgett, Clark and Caracter completely, but I don't think they're going to let us win this one without knocking down at least a handful of outside shots, and I think that could be a really big blessing in disguise for this team. U of L isn't going anywhere unless it breaks out of this current shooting slump, and a defensively challenged team that's going to surrender a plethora of clean looks could be just the thing to do the trick. If Smith, McGee and Sosa hit a couple of outside shots in a row, it will bode well for both Friday's game and each potential contest after that.
BSU is not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but they shouldn't beat Louisville. The only way the Cards drop this one is if they come out distracted, let their offensive woes detract from their focus on the defensive end, or simply don't give the level of effort that every NCAA Tournament game demands.
I can't foresee any of the above taking place.