The Northwestern Wildcats (21-11, 12-8 B1G) will be tasked with taking down an unfamiliar foe in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. According to Sports Reference, Northwestern has played against 227 different opponents since the 1949-50 season, but has never faced off against the Boise State Broncos (24-9, 13-5 MWC).
So what do Northwestern fans need to know about Boise State?
Let’s start with NCAA Tournament appearances for the Broncos. This year will mark Boise State’s ninth NCAA Tournament appearances in program history, and second appearance in as many years. Prior to last season, the Broncos had not made the NCAA Tournament since the 2014-15 season. Every player in the starting lineup played in the NCAA Tournament last season, and has the following makeup: one sophomore in Tyson Degenhart, one junior in Chibuzo Agbo and three seniors in Naje Smith, Max Rice and Marcus Shaver Jr. Shaver has been playing college basketball since the 2017-18 season, starting his career at Portland before transferring to Boise State. Agbo, along with Mohamed Sylla, who averages less than six minutes per game, are the only other transfers on Boise State’s roster.
The Broncos have tournament experience up and down their roster, including an appearance from a player who was not on the roster last season. Agbo played in the NCAA tournament in both of the last two seasons with Texas Tech, managing to score his highest point total as a Red Raider — eight points in six minutes — in Texas Tech’s first round victory over Montana State in last year’s tournament.
Other than Agbo, postseason experience on the Broncos’ roster comes from members of last year’s team. That team went 27-8, with a 15-3 conference record. Boise State won both the Mountain West regular season title and conference title, giving the Broncos a No. 8 seed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The Broncos lost their first round matchup 63-54 to No. 9-seed Memphis. Abu Kigab led the way for the Broncos with 20 points, but was the only Boise State player in double-figures.
In terms of players from last year’s roster that are still on the roster this year, Shaver Jr. started, but only scored four points, going 1-of-10 from the field, and 0-of-4 from deep. Degenhart also started in that game, scoring eight points on 3-of-5 shooting. Rice, Smith and Lukas Milner came off the bench. Rice tallied three points, three steals, two assists and two rebounds, while Smith earned six points, two steals, one assist and two rebounds. Smith and Rice are now in Boise State’s starting lineup, but Milner, who had two points and four rebounds in that game, still comes off the bench this season.
Factoring in Agbo’s time with Texas Tech, every Boise State starter has NCAA Tournament experience. Among those starters, Boise State has extremely balanced scoring. All five starters have double–figure scoring averages, and the starters accounted for 87.7% of Boise State’s points (63.3 of Boise State’s 72.2 points per game) this season. Boise State’s leading scorer is Degenhart, who averages 14.3 points per game, but Rice and Shaver average 13.9 and 13.5 points per game right behind him, respectively. According to Evan Miyakawa, Boise State’s starting lineup is the 21st-most efficient lineup combination in the country this season. That starting lineup propelled the Broncos to a tie for second place in the Mountain West Conference, with a 13-5 record. The Broncos tied with NCAA Tournament No. 10-seed Utah State, and finished behind No. 5-seed San Diego State.
The Broncos are heavily reliant on their starters. Their need for their starters to play heavy minutes (all five starters average more than 28 minutes per game) leads to a very slow pace. According to Team Rankings, Boise State is 232nd in the nation (out of 363 teams) with 69.0 possessions per game, while Northwestern ranks 306th, with 67.4 possessions per game. KenPom ranks Northwestern as the 13th-best defense in the country, with a 93.7 adjusted defensive efficiency rating, but Boise State is ranked as the 14th-best defensive team in the country, with a 93.8 adjusted defensive efficiency rating.
Knowing those ratings, I will warn fans of the ‘Cats that if you are looking for an exciting game in the tournament where Northwestern scores 80+ points, this is not the game for you. Both teams will be very comfortable with the pace that the game will be played at, but that pace is likely going to be very slow.
Although Boise State has a lot of team success both on the defensive side of the ball and with the starting lineup, the Broncos have not had recent success. While Boise State was able to secure a 66-60 victory against then-No. 18 San Diego State to solidify their tournament résumé with a signature win on Feb. 18, the Broncos lost three of their final five games to end the season, and two of their last three games after their win over San Diego State. Utah State, a fellow No. 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament, handed the Broncos their final two losses of the season.
The ‘Cats and Broncos may be cold coming into this game, but anything can happen in March. The matchup between Northwestern and Boise State will air on truTV at 6:35 p.m. CT on Thursday.