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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Ties run deep’: Tyson Degenhart leads Spokane-influenced Boise State against WSU at the Arena

Freshman Tyson Degenhart is Boise State’s fourth-leading scorer at 8.7 points per game.  (Associated Press)

When Washington State and Boise State men’s basketball clash at the Spokane Arena for a neutral-site game on Wednesday at 5 p.m., it could end up feeling like a home game for the Broncos.

Freshman Tyson Degenhart, the former Mt. Spokane star, has more than 200 tickets to distribute to friends and family.

Add in the deep ties that Boise State coach Leon Rice and son Max have with Spokane and the Gonzaga program, and it becomes apparent there will be a significant portion of the crowd wearing blue and orange.

But the area connection doesn’t end there. Senior forward Naje Smith (Lewis and Clark) and freshman guard Kobe Young (Chiawana) also have strong ties to the area and played games at the Arena as high schoolers.

Add it all up and the Cougars might feel like the visitors despite residing much closer to the venue.

Returning hero

Degenhart, the two-time Greater Spokane League MVP, led the Wildcats to the state title game as sophomore in 2019. After getting bounced in the first round in 2020 – just days before the world stopped due to the pandemic – he hoped for more in his senior year.

Due to COVID restrictions and lack of a state tournament, he and the Wildcats had to be happy with “East Region champions” after the shortened spring season earlier this year.

He keeps up with former coaches and teammates as much as he can, and follows the Wildcats from afar. Mt. Spokane (7-1) beat host Curtis in its holiday tournament final on Saturday.

“Seeing their success has been good,” Degenhart said. “They won that Curtis tournament, which was super exciting. I watched a little bit of that and seeing how they’re coming together, such young team, is really, really good to see.”

Degenhart’s transition to the college game has gone smoother than some may have anticipated. He was named Mountain West Freshman of the Week for the second consecutive week after leading Boise State to wins over Santa Clara and Montana Tech. Degenhart averaged a team-best 16.5 points across the two games.

“You just never know how quickly a kid can (transition), because it’s a different game,” Rice said. “The speed of the game, the strength of the game, learning a new system. But No. 1, he’s super coachable. He’s a hard worker. He cares about his teammates.”

But Rice admits he’s a little surprised it’s come so soon.

“He checked all the boxes, but we just didn’t know how quickly he could get up to speed in college. But because of all those qualities, that’s why I inserted into the starting lineup. He’s the kind of guy that makes people around him better. And that’s what we needed.”

Despite his early success, Degenhart knows he still has plenty to learn and the college game is different from high school.

“Completely different story,” he said. “Guys are stronger, faster, better. A lot of times these players were ‘the man’ in high school and it’s definitely a challenge to compete with these guys and try to earn playing time.”

That’s why, two days after beating Central Valley in the “East Region” title game in June, he packed up and headed to Boise.

“They definitely have us in the weight room a lot during the summer and that’s the time when you have to get stronger to get more acclimated to the college game because everyone’s strong in college,” he said.

Degenhart said here’s no real secret to his quick start.

“I think it’s just being in the right spot at the right time and my teammates trusting me and me trusting my teammates,” he said. “They’ll make the right reads and I trust them to do that.”

Tuesday evening, Degenhart’s family hosted a team dinner for the Broncos – some home cooking for the neutral-site game.

Degenhart’s looking forward to the reception at the Arena.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how many fans are there, but I think we’ll have a lot and I think we’ll be able to get some noise in there,” he said.

Old home week

Leon Rice has become synonymous with Boise State basketball. In 11 seasons as head coach, he’s won 20 or more eight times and guided the Broncos to six postseason tournaments, including the first two at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament in school history.

Before his success in Boise, he first served a long apprenticeship in Spokane.

Rice worked under head coach Mark Few at Gonzaga for 11 seasons and played a major role in the Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament appearances in each of his seasons in Spokane. The Bulldogs went 291-73 in Rice’s tenure on the Gonzaga staff.

The Broncos worked out at Gonzaga on Monday.

“Spokane, as you know, is a very, very, very special place for me and my family,” Rice said. “Mark (Few) and I have been best friends for 35 years, or whatever it is, and counting and so it means so much.”

Rice said he didn’t realize how much until getting back this week.

“You forget how much it means to me until you come back and start seeing everybody and the deep relationships we have here,” he said.

Rice’s son Max, a redshirt junior, played with Smith on Washington Supreme AAU, while Degenhart played with Rice’s youngest son, Kade, “from the time he was in eighth grade,” Leon Rice said.

“So these relationships run really, really deep and it’s an important community to us and hopefully they can come out and support the Broncos.”

Rice jumped at the chance to play this neutral-site game at the Arena, allowing for a little exposure for his program and getting a couple of his players back for the holiday.

“We just thought, ‘Wow, what a neat deal,’ and what a neat deal to be able to do it around Christmas and you know, get those guys home.”

Max Rice is excited about being in town and playing at the Arena.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It brings back a lot of memories. I got to go to the Zags’ game (Monday) night. Just floods of memories came back to me. I’m excited to get the chance to play in front of some of my old friends and family.”

He said growing up in Gonzaga basketball was full of invaluable life lessons.

“All the other coaches on the staff had kids my age, so we’d always be in the gym playing while practice was going on,” he said. “Some of the best memories I’ve had growing up honestly at practice.”

Max Rice said the timing of the game during the holidays was a special touch.

“We just have a bunch of ties here and I think it worked out really nicely right before Christmas.”

Long way around

Smith took a somewhat circuitous route to Boise. After leading ninth-seeded Lewis and Clark to a third-place finish at state in 2018, the 6-foot-7 forward spent two years at Cochise (Arizona) College adjusting to the college game before being recruited by the Broncos.

“It was very humbling, definitely helped me mature,” Smith said. “I didn’t think I needed it, but I definitely needed it.

“In JUCO my first year, they told me, ‘You’re skinny, fat and weak.’ I decided to change all those things – eat better, start hitting the weight room more and then just be mentally stronger, and it helped me a lot my second year and it brought me here.”

Smith helped Cochise to back-to-back conference titles and was named a first-team NJCAA Division I All-American his sophomore year.

“Naje is a special soul,” Leon Rice said. “You know he brings us spirit to our team. Naje’s a unique individual. He just approaches things a little differently, but I let Naje be Naje because of the special kid that he is. He does things that aren’t maybe in the textbook of how you do things, but he gets stuff done.”

Smith is looking forward to being back and the experience of playing a college game at the Arena.

“I love it,” he said. “It almost feels like a home game. I know I’ve got a lot of support here as well as Tyson, so we’re gonna have a lot of fans – might have our own home-court advantage. We’ll see. But it’s really nice. It brings a lot of confidence here because I’ve been here, I’ve played here – I know what to expect.”

Ultimately, he’s just happy be back in Spokane.

“It feels great,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here and it’s really good to be back home and just see a lot of people that I know, familiar faces.”