Can Boise State finally break the ice in the NCAA Tournament when it faces Memphis in the first round on Thursday?
The Broncos (27-7) have never won an NCAA Tournament game, going 0-7 in their previous trips to the Big Dance. This feels like a year where Boise State's postseason fortunes could turn. The Broncos won both the regular season and tournament titles in the Mountain West Conference for the first time to clinch their first NCAA bid since 2015. Boise State is a tough team that excels on defense – exactly the sort of opponent that can make life hard for a free-wheeling offense.
The Tigers (21-10) are a talented team getting hot at the right time. Memphis was ranked in the top 10 at one point in the season before a mini-implosion threatened to derail the team mid-season. The Tigers rallied and earned big victories over Houston and SMU down the stretch to lock up their first NCAA bid since 2014. Memphis is also a strong defensive team that excels at crashing the glass. The Tigers are talented enough to push higher-seeded teams in their path to the limit if they get out of the first round.
This is the second straight postseason game between these two clubs. Memphis outlasted Boise State 59-56 in the NIT quarterfinals a year ago. The Tigers went on to win the NIT championship.
West Region: No. 9 Memphis Tigers (21-10) vs. No. 8 Boise State Broncos (27-7)
Time: Thursday, March 17 at 1:45 p.m. ET
Where: Moda Center (Portland, Ore.)
Spread: Memphis -2.5
Keys for Memphis
Fouling will be an asset for the Tigers in this game. Boise State is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Broncos connect on just 65 percent of their attempts from the line. If this is a one- or two-possession game down the stretch, their inability to make free throws could loom large and help Memphis close out a tight game.
The Tigers need to crash the glass early and often. Memphis averages 12.5 offensive rebounds per game, ranking 21st among Division I teams. Points and possessions will be at a premium against another tough defensive team. Extra boards will give the Tigers enough possessions to wear down Boise State's defensive pressure at critical junctures. Jalen Duren will lead the way inside. He is the top scorer and rebounder for Memphis, averaging 12.2 points and 8.0 rebounds. Duren also is a formidable rim protector, blocking 2.2 shots per game.
Keys for Boise State
Memphis coughs up turnovers like it is passing out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters. The Tigers average 16.4 turnovers per game, which ranks 346th among Division I teams. Opportunities for transition baskets will be there for the Broncos. If Boise State can get out and run and generate a few easy baskets, it could be a difference-maker in a tightly contested game. A big night from leading scorer Abu Kigab, who averages 14.7 points per game, will go a long way for the Broncos.
Being patient on offense will be important. The Tigers are relentless and physical on defense. Boise State has a ton of experience and those players need to stay calm. If the Broncos waste too many possessions, Memphis can punish them on the other end in a hurry. The Tigers average 76.2 points per game and rank 50th nationally in offensive efficiency.
Both Boise State and Memphis rebounded from tough starts and closed the regular season strong. The Broncos have won 24 of 27 games coming into the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are winners in 12 of their last 14 contests. Tough defense will define this game, much like it did when these two teams battled a year ago. Ultimately, Memphis has enough of an edge with its athleticism and NBA-level talent to slip past Boise State. The Tigers' wins over Houston, Alabama, and Virginia Tech prove they are good enough to beat anyone when everything is clicking.
Prediction: Memphis 66, Boise State 62
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.