Their careers blossomed in Idaho. Now they’re NCAA Tournament bound with Boise State

Before they were teammates on the Boise State men’s basketball team, Max Rice and Jace Whiting were standouts on the hardwood as high school players in Idaho.

Now they’ll get a rare chance to represent the Gem State and the Broncos when Boise State (24-9) faces off against Northwestern (21-11) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 5:35 p.m. Mountain time Thursday at the Golden 1 Center (truTV).

Rice is expected to become the first Boise State player with Idaho ties to play in two NCAA Tournament games. If Whiting takes the court — and he’s a regular contributor off the bench — they’ll be the first Idaho products to play together in the tournament for the Broncos since 1992-93.

And the Broncos are collectively trying to make history with their first NCAA Tournament win.

“I don’t feel like Idaho gets enough recognition for the talent that it has,” Whiting said. “And we always get overlooked for sure. So it’s nice to be able to represent and kind of put Idaho on the map a little bit.”

Rice, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound redshirt senior guard, joined the Broncos as a walk-on out of Bishop Kelly High, where he was a three-time 4A All-Idaho first-team selection and two-time 4A Southern Idaho Conference Player of the Year. As a senior, he averaged 23.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, guiding the Knights to a third-place finish at the state tournament.

After redshirting in 2018-19, Rice has steadily improved each year, going from averaging 2.7 points per game in 2019-20 to 13.9 points per game this season. He expects the same progress in the NCAA Tournament after contributing three points, three steals, two rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes off the bench in last year’s 64-53 loss to Memphis.

“I was lucky enough to play in it last year, which was a really good experience,” said Rice, whose younger brother Kade is redshirting with the Broncos this season. “But this year it just feels different because of my role on the team and what I feel like I can bring to this team and this tournament.”

There’s good reason to believe Rice and the Broncos are ready for an NCAA Tournament breakthrough if Rice’s own path is a blueprint.

Rice set a new career high for points in a season with 459, and in Mountain West action he averaged 15.9 points per game. He is only the third Idahoan in program history to score 459 points in one season, joining Steve Connor and Abe Jackson — the third- and sixth-leading scorers in program history. Rice is also the only Boise State player since at least 1992-93 to shoot 44% from the field, 41.5% from 3-point range and 87.7% from the free throw line in the same season.

“Typical coach’s son. He’s really smart. He’s tough. Can really shoot the ball,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I mean, obviously, I’ve had a chance over the last three days to watch a lot of their films. He’s scary because he’s one of these guys if he hits one, I’ve seen him go on a run, four, five in a row. I just watched their last home game against San Diego State, all of a sudden he scored 15 in a row in the second half to kind of single-handedly win the game.

“You have to be accountable for him at all times. You have to make sure you’re there when he catches the ball. He’s so crafty. Stay down, make sure you don’t foul him. He’s a good player, really good scorer.”

Boise State guard Jace Whiting gets the jump on Nevada guard Jarod Lucas on a scoring drive in the first half Jan. 17 at ExtraMile Arena in Boise.
Boise State guard Jace Whiting gets the jump on Nevada guard Jarod Lucas on a scoring drive in the first half Jan. 17 at ExtraMile Arena in Boise.

Whiting finished his Burley High career as the Bobcats’ all-time scoring leader with 1,430 career points, and he was nominated to play in the 2020 McDonald’s All-American Game. As a senior, he earned 4A All-Idaho first-team honors after averaging 24.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.

He took a two-year church mission to Helsinki, Finland, before returning to the Broncos this season as a true freshman. Whiting is typically one of the first players off the bench.

“It’s super crazy, because the state tournament felt like a big stage, but looking back on it, it feels like a little kid’s playground,” Whiting said. “This is like the real deal. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always watched this tournament, I’ve always filled out brackets, so it’s just really exciting to be a part of it. I feel like a kid in a candy store.”