LAS VEGAS — The last time he was on the staff of a bubble team, Boise State coach Leon Rice was an assistant at Gonzaga under Mark Few.
He recalls tracking every fellow bubble team in its conference tournament and cringing whenever one of them pulled out an unlikely win.
"I remember watching Colorado and Kansas State, and [Kansas State] got the ball, started celebrating a win and traveled," Rice said. "Then [Colorado] threw it in, hit a three, sent it to overtime and won it in overtime. So I'm not going to do that again."
For the first time since that 2002-03 season at Gonzaga, the fate of Rice's team is again in the selection committee's hands. His Boise State team could have taken a huge step toward securing an at-large bid Wednesday night with a win over San Diego State in the Mountain West quarterfinals, but they shot the ball uncharacteristically poorly against the Aztecs' stingy defense and lost 73-67.
Though it's a helpless feeling having no more chances to play between now and Sunday, Rice lobbied for his team during his postgame press conference and again with a small group of reporters afterward.
He noted his team's 21-10 record includes top 50 RPI wins at Creighton and at home against UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State. He noted several of his team's losses came on the final possession or in overtime against elite competition. And he noted that his team played the type of non-conference schedule the selection committee insists it values, one that included power-conference programs Michigan State, LSU and Utah and elite mid-major Creighton.
"If you look at our résumé with four top 50 wins and I think 16 top 100 games, we went out and played people," Rice said. We did all that we could do. I think the committee really views that. Did you go out and schedule? Did you play a lot of high level teams? There's some other teams they're talking about getting in that have one top 50 win. I think our [résumé] stands up."
It's not hard to figure out the team Rice could be alluding to may be old WCC rival Saint Mary's, a potential direct competitor for one of the final spots in the NCAA tournament.
There's a strong argument for taking Boise State over Saint Mary's since the Gaels' lone marquee win came against Creighton at home and the Broncos beat the Bluejays on the road and also knocked have several other quality teams. At the same time, Saint Mary's has a far better overall record than Boise State and hasn't lost a game to anyone besides Gonzaga since before Christmas.
Boise State may not have needed to be in the position to compare profiles had it beaten San Diego State, something the Broncos did three days earlier on their home floor to cap a stretch of five wins in six games.
In that game, Derrick Marks had 22 second-half points to carry his team to a hard-fought 69-65 victory. In Wednesday night's game, the standout guard missed his first 12 shots from the field, bounced back to propel Boise State to a fleeting one-point lead with a pair of threes and then went into a funk again.
Marks actually finished with 14 points, but it came on horrific 4 of 22 shooting. Too often he couldn't free himself against San Diego State perimeter defenders who switched every screen and dribble handoff in hopes of walling off the basket and keeping him from killing them in the lane again.
"The player that I am, I have to keep being aggressive," Marks said. "I'm very disappointed with the performance I had, but I've just got to bounce back from it in whatever tournament we're in. That's all I can do now."
All that Rice and his players can do now is return to Boise, start practicing again and kill time until Sunday when the selection committee announces their fate. It's a very helpless feeling, but Rice isn't complaining since a few months ago he wasn't sure his underclassmen-heavy roster was ready to have this kind of success.
"People asked me about my team at the start of the year, and I said, 'I think I we're a little too young," Rice said. "We have 10 freshmen and sophomores. I thought we were a year away, and then all of a sudden we start beating people."
Come Sunday, Rice will find out if that was enough.