Seven months after leaving his assistant coaching gig at hoops-crazed Gonzaga to try to reinvigorate the basketball program at football-obsessed Boise State, Leon Rice experienced major culture shock.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 8: Mountain West Conference
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• Mountain West Capsule Preview: League seeks to shed its reputation as postseason underachiever
Rice walked onto the court for Boise State's season-opening exhibition game against UC-Colorado Springs three years ago and discovered that cavernous 12,500-seat Taco Bell Arena was nearly empty. The announced crowd that night was 1,599, but Rice doubts there were even half that many fans in attendance.
"You could hear crickets," Rice said. "You could have fired a cannon in there and you wouldn't have hit anybody. I have three sons, and one of my sons said to me, 'Oh dad, there's nobody here.' I told him, 'Just hang in there. We're going to get it going. We'll have an amazing fan base.'"
If Rice's vow to his son seemed far-fetched at the time, that's no longer the case anymore. Interest in Boise State basketball is soaring entering the 2013-14 season with the Broncos returning all five starters from a team that won 21 games a year ago and earned the school's second NCAA tournament bid since 1994.
Boise State's average attendance of 6,394 fans per game last season was more than double the season before Rice's arrival and represented the fifth-largest increase in the nation from the previous year. School officials expect another big jump this season since they've already sold 4,929 season tickets, over 1,000 more than were purchased last year.
No other sport may ever eclipse football at a school that has won 11 or more football games nine of the past 11 years, but Boise State basketball players have experienced more buzz entering this season than any in recent memory. Strangers stop players at the supermarket to wish them good luck or ask for pictures or autographs when they spot a group of players on campus or at a local restaurant.
"I went to a water park here in Boise this summer, and every couple of people stopped me to say they were really excited for the season," Boise State junior forward Anthony Drmic said. "Obviously people would still stop you and ask how it was going a couple years ago, but not like this. Everyone in Boise really is excited for the season to start. It's a different experience."
Having a true home-court advantage is critical for Boise State's league title hopes this season simply because of how difficult it is to win on the road in the Mountain West. If fellow contenders New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State and Utah State are going to pile up wins at home in front of energetic sellout crowds, then Boise State must be able to do the same to keep pace.
It's a testament to Rice that Boise State has made such a smooth transition from the WAC to the basketball-rich Mountain West because that seemed unlikely before he took the job. Spurts of success under predecessor Greg Graham hinted at untapped potential, but the Broncos struggled to win consistently, to put fans in the stands or to escape the shadow of the school's football success.
Whereas other potential replacements for Graham might have viewed the rise of Boise State football as a drawback, Rice regarded Chris Petersen's program as a selling point. Not only was the Boise State brand recognizable to recruits because of the football program, Rice also felt the Broncos' football success suggested that the school already had the ingredients in place necessary to grow the basketball program into a winner too.
"Back then, I just remember everyone would make a change and they'd say we want to be another Gonzaga," Rice said. "It's just not that simple. You can't just hire a new coach. You've got to have everything in place. One of the things I saw was that they had done it with football. They had built a program that was a national-level program. When I saw that, I was like they've got the fan base, the facilities, a community that supports them, a supportive administration. If you're missing one or two of those, it's next-to-impossible to do it but what I saw was they weren't missing that here."
Even though athletic director Gene Bleymaier was let go just over a year into Rice's tenure, the Boise State coach feels fortunate about who replaced him. Mark Coyle came from perennial basketball power Kentucky, where he served as the sport administrator for men's basketball and became very familiar with what was necessary for success.
Months before Coyle's arrival, Boise State had just unveiled a brand-new 10,000-square-foot facility for its basketball programs featuring everything from theater-style film rooms, to plush lounge and kitchen areas, to spacious locker rooms. As a result, Coyle decided the best way to further invest in the program was to increase Rice's budget for recruiting travel.
"As I talk to Leon, our goal is to continue to move this program in the right direction," Coyle said. "Coming from Kentucky gave me great credibility with Leon and our basketball staff. They understand I was at that program for seven years and saw it at that level. We'll continue to invest in the men's basketball program and all our programs and we think Leon and his staff are doing a great job."
Increasing the recruiting budget was a logical choice because Rice and his staff have built Boise State into a Mountain West contender by plucking players from all over the globe.
Drmic, Boise State's leading scorer last season, is one of three players on the team who hail from Australia. Marks, the Broncos' all-conference point guard, came from the South Side of Chicago. Other members of the team grew up anywhere from Las Vegas, to Augusta, Ga., to Riga, Latvia.
What Rice has emphasized in recruiting are the same things Dan Monson and Mark Few sought during the early years of Gonzaga's rise: highly skilled players with good character. Finding quality big men initially proved more difficult than landing perimeter talent, so Rice quickly adjusted by employing an up-tempo, four-guard system with an emphasis on outside shooting, spacing and movement.
Most of Boise State's key players last season were sophomores or juniors, so the expectation inside and outside the program was that the Broncos were a year away contending for a Mountain West crown or an NCAA bid. As a result, it was both surprising and encouraging to Rice to see his team blossom a year earlier than expected, notching home wins over UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State in league play to secure one of the final spots in the NCAA tournament.
"I was a bit surprised," Rice said. "I'm an optimistic guy, but you want to be a realist too. I just knew how young we were. We were one of the youngest teams in the country, 10 freshmen and sophomores. I knew they would get good but I didn't know how quickly they would be able to make that jump. It's a credit to them for how hungry they were and how hard they worked."
One of the focuses for Boise State this offseason was at the defensive end of the floor. The Broncos yielded the fourth-most points per possession in the Mountain West last season and finished 214th in the nation in field goal percentage allowed, so Rice hired new assistant Danny Henderson to overhaul the defensive scheme and implement a new one.
The focus away from the basketball court for Boise State has been to reach out to the community and continue to build fan support. At a recent football home game, Marks and fellow guard Jeff Elorriaga mingled with fans tailgating in the parking lots, introducing themselves and encouraging them to come check out the basketball team.
"I actually gave a fan a pair of shoes just so she'll come to the games," Elorriaga said. "She said now that I gave her my shoes, she'll come to every game."
Enticing most fans probably won't require free giveaways. Despite virtually no marketing and little advance notice, the Broncos had a larger crowd pack their volleyball gym for a men's basketball intrasquad scrimmage earlier this month than the one that attended Rice's debut exhibition game three years earlier.
So is Boise State on the way to becoming a basketball school now? That question draws a chuckle from Marks.
"I think we can be known as a basketball school, definitely," the junior guard said.
That's a lofty goal, but the Broncos are beginning to make some strides.