A deep breath at the end of February

Ask coach Leon Rice, and he'll tell you the importance of getting the Mountain West's weekend bye at this point of the season cannot be overstated.

(TOM SCOTT'S COLUMN WILL RETURN ON MONDAY, MARCH 5.)

Friday, February 23, 2018.

Ask coach Leon Rice, and he’ll tell you the importance of getting the Mountain West’s weekend bye at this point of the season cannot be overstated. Boise State is off while it watches the rest of the conference’s 10 teams knock heads tomorrow and Sunday—a week and a half before the Mountain West tournament. Exhibit No. 1 is Chandler Hutchison, the conference Player of the Year favorite. Hutchison tweaked a bothersome knee 2½ minutes into the Air Force game last week and spent five minutes in the locker room. He ended up playing only 28 minutes and, because of the blowout, only 28 at Colorado State Wednesday night. All of the Broncos’ main characters were able to take time off in Fort Collins. That’s crucially important as they recharge for whatever postseason opportunity they’re presented.

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More on Boise State’s rebounding prowess this season and where it comes from. Let’s just say camaraderie, coaching and conditioning. Here’s what Colorado State interim coach Jase Herl saw Wednesday night, as reported by the Coloradoan. “They’re a bunch of grown men out there, and if you aren’t ready when that shot goes up, you could get a knee taken out, a hip taken out,” said the 30-year-old assistant who took over the Rams two weeks ago. “They’re a very physical basketball team.” Being in good shape is at the core now, and some R&R couldn’t be more timely.

So what has turned Boise State into “a very physical basketball team” this season? First, there’s the muscle that Hutchison put on during the summer and fall last year, rounding him into the first-round NBA Draft prospect he has become. Second, the addition of graduate transfer Chris Sengfelder from Fordham, whose tenacity around the basket has been a perfect fit for this team. Third, Zach Haney’s dedication to improvement this season has made him, well, the most improved player on the team. Haney’s skyhook has become more of a signature shot as the season has progressed and, like Sengfelder, his grit on the boards has changed the Broncos’ dynamic.

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Great to see Winston Venable back in the Bronco fold. The former nickel has joined the staff of Boise State strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman. Venable never played under Pitman, but he’d be a chip off that old block. There weren’t many junior college transfers who were able to make an immediate impact during the Chris Petersen era, but Venable was one of them. During his two-year Bronco career, the fan favorite turned in some of the more physical plays produced by the defense, including a vaulting sack of Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn in 2009 at Bulldog Stadium. Venable also made the interception that effectively ended the game against TCU in Boise State’s 2010 Fiesta Bowl victory.

Speaking of Fresno State, one of the guys intimately involved with the Bulldogs’ amazing turnaround has checked out after just one year. Defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer is returning to the Canadian Football League to become the assistant head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Fresno State improved to second in the Mountain West in scoring defense and total defense last season, up from seventh and sixth, respectively, during a 1-11 season in 2016. It’s been tough for coach Jeff Tedford to keep momentum going down there. The Bulldogs have been without an athletic director since the resignation of Jim Bartko in early November.

Nick Cunningham and Sam Michener finally hit the iced track in the four-man bobsled event tonight (tomorrow in South Korea) at the Winter Olympics. You’ve heard Cunningham’s story as a former Boise State sprinter. Here’s Michener’s in a nutshell. He was a 6A champion sprinter in high school in the Portland area before signing to run track at Idaho. At the start of his sophomore year, a serious motorcycle accident sidelined him for a year, and the Vandals cut his scholarship for his junior season. Nevertheless, Michener walked on, and he ultimately qualified for the NCAA Championships in the 100-meters—and he got the scholarship back as a senior. He got into bobsled after talking to a sports psychologist at Idaho who was a member of the Trinidad and Tobago bobsled team in the 1980’s. And here he is in Pyeongchang.

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The Idaho Steelheads, who have won seven of eight games against Rapid City this season, try to maintain the reign with two more road tussles against the Rush this weekend. Among the many Steelheads individual performances to tout: Max French has played 14 games for the Steelies, with two-thirds of his goal-scoring coming in the past two outings. French tallied twice against Colorado last Saturday and twice more Wednesday night in the win over Rapid City. He has six goals for the season. Another local pro thing: PGA National played tough yesterday, and Troy Merritt found himself at one-over 71 after the first round of the Honda Classic. But the former Boise State standout is in position to make the cut, in a tie for 36th.

Circling back to hoops—a thriller in Pocatello last night, as Idaho State snapped Idaho’s six-game winning streak when Brandon Boyd hit a three-pointer with two seconds left to give the Bengals an 86-83 victory. It was one of six treys for Boyd, who led ISU with 32 points. And top-seeded College of Idaho knows the Cascade Conference tournament is going to be a grind after having to rally from a 10-point second-half deficit to beat eight-seeded Northwest Wednesday night. The next test for the Coyotes comes against Southern Oregon tomorrow night in the tournament semifinals in Caldwell.

The fourth annual Idaho Youth Sports Commission Dinner and Auction is set for Saturday, April 21, at JUMP, and Trent Johnson will be the headline speaker. Johnson, who played on Boise State’s first NCAA Tournament team in 1976, has had a distinguished career in coaching, with stops at Nevada, Stanford, LSU and TCU (he got his start as sophomore coach at Boise High). Previous featured guests have been Jake Plummer, Kellen Moore and Heather Cox. The IYSC stresses positive coaching and the prevention of burnout among young athletes—playing sports for the love of the game.

This Day In Sports…February 23, 1980:

Having celebrated with the US hockey team after the previous night’s historic upset of the Soviets, Eric Heiden oversleeps that morning. Planning to be up at 6:30 to prepare for the 10,000-meter speed skating event, Heiden rolled out of bed at 7:40. He grabbed three slices of bread for breakfast and raced to the track, where he blew away the competition—smashing the world record by over six seconds. Heiden’s win meant a fifth gold medal, the first time an athlete has won five individual golds in the same Olympic Games.

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(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)