Boise State had high hopes entering the season with a pair of program greats planning to conclude their careers with a joint ascent of the school record books.
An 0-3 start in the Mountain West Conference followed a devastating injury to one of those players, and those hopes seemed all but erased. A 14-1 run followed.
Now entering the MWC tournament with the top seed, the 25th-ranked Broncos' high hopes have given way to high expectations as the co-conference champions begin their tournament run Thursday in Las Vegas in a quarterfinal matchup with Air Force, which enters riding a rare tournament victory.
Boise State (24-7), ranked for the first time in program history, earned the top seed in the conference tournament by sweeping the season series against San Diego State, which also finished 14-4 in the league. One of those wins came during a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season, on which the Broncos cruised by an average of 15.7 points.
"Just a little worried I'm going to wake up," coach Leon Rice said. "... This is how you would script it. To win a championship at home after going 0-3, our guys just have a lot of belief."
It was their first conference title in the Mountain West with their last overall coming in 2007-08 as part of the Western Athletic Conference. That also happens to be the last year they celebrated a tournament crown, well before the arrivals of seniors Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, who both rank among the school's top seven all-time scorers.
Drmic, a 6-foot-6 swingman who has averaged 15.3 points over three-plus seasons, had his season end just seven games in due to an ankle injury, but Marks had no trouble shouldering more work.
The 6-3 guard averaged 19.6 points while shooting 50.6 percent and 46.0 percent from 3-point range - all career bests - on his way to MWC Player of the Year honors.
Rice was also recognized as Coach of the Year, while freshman James Webb III earned Newcomer of the Year.
The most recent meeting with Air Force (14-16) was also a blowout with Webb's 17 points leading a 67-42 home victory on Feb. 11. On Jan. 24 at Air Force, things didn't come as easily but Boise State prevailed 77-68 behind 28 points from Marks.
For the Falcons, Marek Olesinski had 24 points in the home game but the forward was held scoreless on the road.
"I'm very excited," Air Force forward Hayden Graham said. "We felt like the game at home, we were right there. It was a great game, I think. When we went out to Boise, I don't think we brought the same energy and effort as we should have or we were capable of."
Air Force, the tournament's No. 9 seed, won just its third Mountain West tournament game ever with Wednesday's 68-61 victory over No. 8 New Mexico, the defending tournament champion which eliminated Boise State in the semifinals a season ago. The Falcons improved to 3-15 all-time in the competition behind 20 points from Zach Kocur, and even coach Dave Pilipovich intimated it was unexpected.
"Well, first thing I'm going to start this with is we may be in a little bit of trouble," said Pilipovich after the win over the Lobos. "When I woke up this morning, I had the hotel bill underneath my door, so we may not have rooms tonight."