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Broncos’ high hopes slowly slip away


BOISE, Idaho

It doesn’t matter the expert, the website, the level of respect shown a specific prognosticator nationally.

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament this college basketball season, most everyone views the Mountain West in a similar manner: a conference worthy of two berths.

Maybe.

The league that sent five teams to the NCAAs in 2013 and spent time last season ranked as the country’s top conference isn’t that robust this time around. In fact, the only NCAA lock today is San Diego State.

Yep. New Mexico isn’t considered a sure thing by some who draw brackets for a living. The same New Mexico with a 20-5 record, Ratings Percentage Index of 30 and strength-of-schedule rating of 86.

Which pretty much tells you what they think of Boise State.

The Broncos aren’t on anyone’s Last Four In or First Four Out or Next Four Out or Any Line That Gives The Hint A Berth Is Possible. They are 17-9 and in fifth place, a team that hasn’t come close to meeting preseason hype that suggested it could contend for a league championship.

And yet it’s not a ridiculous reach to suggest that if the conference would send a third team to the madness come March, Boise State owns the best opportunity to dance.

Well, maybe it’s a really long reach.

The team that hosts UNLV tonight at Taco Bell Arena probably can’t reach the NCAAs as an at-large team, even though it has an RPI of 54 and a schedule rating of 46, respectable numbers in the big picture of a five-month season.

Boise State was moving along just fine a month ago with no losses to teams with RPIs 100 or worse, but then fell at UNLV (118) and Utah State (106). Those sort of defeats don’t play well when blind resumes are compared to other teams hoping to float along the NCAA bubble.

But for those teams that will need to win three games in the conference tournament at the Thomas &Mack Center to secure NCAA life (meaning everyone except San Diego State and New Mexico), Boise State would appear to have the sort of makeup that lends itself to such success.

It can shoot.

It can score.

It can ride offense for long stretches.

The league’s top scoring team averages 77.1 points and has won two straight, causing some Boise State players to insist an NCAA berth isn’t the lost cause many outside the program believe. They are calling the next five games the last lap of a long mile.

They remind others of last year, when after a forgettable January that saw the Broncos lose four of their last five in the month, the team managed to regroup and make the field of 68.

That’s where the Broncos fell to La Salle as part of the tournament’s First Four, when it was assumed a Boise State side that didn’t start a senior that night in Dayton, Ohio, would have an even easier time returning to the NCAAs in 2014.

Things haven’t been easy by a long shot.

Boise State is a game back of UNLV and Wyoming for third place, meaning a matchup such as tonight’s against the Rebels is beyond important for a Broncos team that has found finishing games this season about as excruciating as being a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team this week.

The Broncos lost a double-digit lead in the final minutes at UNLV this month and fell 73-69; they allowed a 3-pointer with four seconds remaining against San Diego State in losing at home by two; they lost at home to Wyoming by a basket; they have five losses by four or fewer points.

They have just two top-100 wins, both coming at home, and neither of the league’s top two teams are left on the schedule.

It paints a rather dreary picture for the Mountain West come Selection Sunday, that if there is a third NCAA team among the 11 conference schools, Boise State appears a leading candidate with insufficient credentials.

UNLV had such bubble thoughts before losing by 12 at home to New Mexico on Wednesday, leaving the Rebels with a resume that still includes just one top-50 win.

“We have a good basketball team,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I think we have proven that of late. We didn’t play well (against New Mexico). But we have a good basketball team.”

Boise State believes the same thing about itself, confident the bleak situation all those prognosticators are forecasting isn’t what reality will prove three weeks from now in Las Vegas.

Teams that score like the Broncos tend to have a shade more confidence than others.

“We’re going to give it everything we can and fall across that finish line and die,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said of the season’s final weeks. “That’s how hard we’re going to go.”

Whether it’s hard enough for a third Mountain West bid is hardly a sure bet.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.