Boise State head coach Leon Rice has quickly developed the Bronco men’s basketball program into a perennial NCAA tournament, but the major pitfalls of Rice’s system in the frontcourt—size and rebounding—have limited Boise State’s true potential.

Senior forward Ryan Watkins is quickly changing that.

As a freshman, Watkins averaged 5.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, and was part of a Bronco frontcourt which was consistently out rebounded.

This season, Watkins is nearly averaging a double-double with 10.6 points and 9.7 rebounds, and has become one of Rice’s most reliable options in the paint as both a rebounder and a scorer. He is third in the Mountain West in rebounding.

In Boise State’s 78-74 win over Utah State on Saturday, Watkins finished with 15 points, 16 rebounds and three steals for the Broncos at Taco Bell Arena.

“Ryan…10 offensive rebounds, that’s amazing,” Rice said following the Boise State win. “We just knew that we had to battle them for every possession. He’s got a good feel for the ball.”

The Broncos (13-5, 3-2 MWC) are heralded as an incredibly talented offensive team—they lead the Mountain West in scoring with 79.2 points per game—but it’s becoming more and more apparent how crucial Watkins’ performance is to garnering a Boise State victory.

Watkins hasn’t always been a force on the offensive and defensive glass for the Broncos, and Rice said he has specifically worked with Watkins to try to evolve his skills as a rebounder over the last four years. He has seven double-doubles on the season, none of which came in any of the Broncos five losses.

“I think Ryan will tell you, over the four years we’ve never let up on him as far as rebounding the basketball. And he’s been mad at me a few times,” Rice said. “I told him, ‘Hey, you can be an all-league player just by your rebounding.’”

Rebounding isn’t just about strength, size and athleticism. Added awareness and instinct have allowed Watkins to become one of the most dominant rebounders in the Mountain West, even though his 6-foot 9-inch frame isn’t normally ideal for a rim protector.

With Boise State’s abundance of 3-point shooters, Watkins has learned where to position himself based on the shooter.

“He’s a smart kid – he’s got great character and motor. He does that for the team,” Rice said. “He gets some put backs, but how many times have you just seen him fly in there, rebound it, kick it out to one of these other guys … That’s just the most unselfish play in basketball.”

Watkins doesn’t always have a role as a scorer for the Broncos, and he recognizes that. Sometimes all he has to do is be aggressive on the boards to help Boise State win. He has 10 or more rebounds in 10 games this season.

“I know that’s how I can help my team. They count on me to (rebound), so that’s what I’m going to do,” Watkins said. “I just try to get every rebound.”

John Engel
John Engel is the sports editor of the Arbiter. He got interested in journalism when he was cut from the baseball team his junior year of high school. He started writing for his high school newspaper and swore he would one day work for ESPN, and indeed he did. He recently finished an internship with ESPN as a radio production intern where he talked to Kobe Bryant and almost fainted. He still works with ESPN Radio's Boise affiliate, ESPN Boise as a studio engineer, reporter and SportsCenter anchor. He is majoring in communication with an audio production emphasis, and plans to graduate sometime in the next decade. Follow John on Twitter: @EngelESPN