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Wednesday’s defeat followed all too familiar script for Boise State

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Wednesday night’s game against No. 5 San Diego State represented a great opportunity for the Boise State Broncos. With all five starters back from a team that reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, the Broncos entered the 2013-14 season with questions of whether or not they had the ability to contend for a Mountain West title. A return to the Big Dance seemed to be a given, with guards Anthony Drmic, Derrick Marks and Mikey Thompson and forward Ryan Watkins expected to lead the way.

Unfortunately for the Broncos things haven’t worked out as planned, with Leon Rice’s team sitting at 15-8 overall and 5-5 in Mountain West play. And their 67-65 loss to the Aztecs, capped by a Dwayne Polee II three-pointer with just over four seconds remaining, followed a script that Boise State has become all too familiar with.

Of Boise State’s five Mountain West defeats four have been by four points or less, with the opposition being the ones capable of making those winning plays down the stretch. Against San Diego State two occurrences resulted in the latest heartbreaking defeat.

First and foremost, San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames put forth a masterful display in the second half. The fifth-year senior accounted for 15 of his 23 points in the second half while also taking better care of the basketball (two assists, two turnovers) after turning the ball over five times in the first 20 minutes.

The other occurrence? That would be Boise State’s perplexing lack of ball movement down the stretch, something that according to Brian Murphy of the Idaho Statesman has become commonplace in tight games.

Then came the same nightmarish qualities that have become Boise State’s signature. Forget a signature win, this team’s John Hancock is its inability to close…

The Broncos’ familiar free-flowing, motion offense, the same one that yields open 3-pointers and lanes to the basket earlier in the game, grinds to a halt. The ball sticks. The passes come slower. The offense goes stale, resulting in wild drives into the teeth of the defense late in the shot clock.

To this point in the season Drmic is leading Boise State in scoring with an average of 16.8 points per game, shooting 44.9% from the field and 35.3% from beyond the arc. Against San Diego State the junior scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half, but what makes that figure even more concerning is the fact that Drmic attempted just four of his 13 shots in the second half.

Boise State’s second-half shot distribution was as follows: Marks (ten attempts), Drmic (four), Thompson (three) and Thomas Bropleh (three). So two of Boise State’s top three scorers, Drmic and Watkins (11.8 ppg), attempted a total of four shots in the second half. Against a team that defends as well as San Diego State does, a lack of offensive balance ultimately won’t cut it.

Even with the scorers the Broncos have, they are ninth in the Mountain West in assist percentage with just over 44% of their made baskets being assisted. So to expect this group to suddenly morph into a squad that will assist on, say, six out of every ten made shots would be a bit unrealistic.

But the ball movement can’t grind to a halt, something that has been an issue in the majority of Boise State’s close defeats. This likely goes hand in hand with the doubts that creep into the Broncos’ heads in tight games, with Rice noting after Wednesday’s defeat that he “saw that look in our guys’ eyes” according to the Statesman.

Regardless of what the issues may be in close contests, Boise State needs to figure out a solution quickly.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.