Making the NCAA Basketball Tournament is a big deal. Making it as an at large team is even bigger. The Broncos have had an outstanding year going 21-10 so far and rejuvenating the fan base in Boise drawing big crowds. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament four times before - all as a league champ when they’ve won the conference tournament. When you make it with an invitation your program has arrived.
The team has improved faster than most would have expected. Taking the road of hard knocks in their first year in the Mountain West last year allowed the young Broncos to grow up and be ready to compete from the start this year. Since they played with the same cast of characters as they did last season, the team already knew their roles. Players worked hard in the off season to get up to Mountain West level. Anthony Drmic became a scorer, being able to take the ball to the basket, in addition to sniping from three. Derrick Marks improved both his mid-range and three point game to go with the ability to take it to the basket. Ryan Watkins learned how to play with his new body. And everyone got better at rebounding and defense.
When you look at this team individually it doesn’t look as impressive as it does when you see them together. That is a credit to the coaches and players for taking a lot of pieces and putting it all together.
The opposition in the first round tomorrow is La Salle (21-9), the fifth team in the tournament from the Atlantic 10. It is hard for me to believe that the Explorers are here. When I announced for U Mass, La Salle was almost always in the bottom grouping of teams in the league. They were good for a few years in the late 80’s and early 90’s when they had National Player of the Year - Lionel Simmons. They won a National Championship in the 50’s when another National Player of the Year - Tom Gola - starred for them. But between that a lot of lean years in North Philly. They play in a small gym and financially aren’t one of the haves in either the A-10 or in Philly.
The Explorers are very similar in style to Boise State. Four guards, shoot a lot of threes, run it up and down the court. Expect a high scoring game if both teams are on. Both teams have a pair of guards who were honored on their respective all-conference teams. Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren for La Salle and Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic for the Broncos. I think the Boise State will have an edge rebounding and on defense and I think they will move on to Kansas City for a Friday meeting with Kansas State.
Dayton is a great venue for basketball with some of the best fans in the country. Like La Salle, they are in the Atlantic 10. Whenever you go there - they have a good crowd. Whether your team is playing the Flyers, or for an Atlantic 10 tournament game (they hosted twice while I was at U Mass), or for the First Four or a regular regional. College basketball is a big deal in Dayton.
Back in 2004, Dayton hosted the A-10 tournament and I will forever remember UD Arena as the place I had my toughest broadcast. I went on the air four days after the passing of my broadcast partner Jack Leaman. To do the game with and empty chair next to me was the most difficult assignment I’ve had. A good friend, Tom McCarthy, had do a broadcast hours after the passing of Harry Kalas…I can only imagine that one. Jack is still the all-time winningest coach at U Mass and taught me more about basketball than any one. His gravelly Massachusetts accent was unmistakable. His friendship to every one there was special. When I walk in the door Wednesday, I will think of Jack and know that he would like this Boise State team…a team that has achieved a lot more than expected. When things got close he would bellow - “it is getting sticky Robert.”
Let’s hope things don’t get sticky against La Salle. It is a great time of the year to be involved. The tournament is so much more fun when your team is in. We’re getting on a plane Wednesday night after the game. Let’s hope it is headed to Kansas City so I can have some ribs - that is also something Jack would have loved.