It might seem Air Force, as a 13.5-point underdog, has nothing to lose at Boise State on Saturday.
But that wouldn’t be accurate for a team with goals hanging by a thread and looking to stem the tide of close-but-not-close-enough efforts.
“We’re going to turn it,” a frustrated coach Dave Pilipovich said after a loss on Wednesday at UNLV. “We’re going to turn it.”
The turn needs to come in a hurry.
The Falcons would love to play in the postseason for the first time in six years, and the schedule leaves that a tantalizing possibility with four of the last five in the regular season played at home. But if Air Force (10-14, 4-8 Mountain West) can’t find a way to top the Broncos they would fall five games under .500 with five to play. To gain entry into the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) or College Basketball Invitational (CBI), a team must be at or above .500, so the Falcons would have to navigate the rest of the season without a safety net without a win Saturday.
There’s also the conference standings to consider. The Falcons, in ninth place with those eight losses, are two back in the loss column from No. 5 New Mexico and No. 6 Wyoming, and just a game back of No. 7 Utah State and No. 8 San Diego State. A victory, and then the favorable closing slate, could set Pilipovich’s team up for its best finish since the Mountain West expanded to 11 teams in 2013-14. In that time, the team hasn’t finished better than ninth.
Seeding will be important this year, given what looks to be a wide-open conference tournament.
But for any of this to happen, the Falcons have to break a pattern. Yes, they’ve won two of three and four of the past eight, so it’s not like they’re stuck in a rut. However, there are two recurring outcomes that have left them deflated more often than not this season. Either the team gets blown out on the road, as it has five times by 19 points or more. Or it challenges a top-tier team until the closing minutes before losing steam.
That happened against Boise State (20-6, 10-4) at Clune Arena on Jan. 27, as the Broncos broke a 59-all tie with 3:09 remaining and prevailed 70-64.
It was a similar story in both losses to UNLV and a home setback to Nevada.
If this team has any hopes of playing beyond the Mountain West Tournament for the first time since 2013, it has to find a way to make those plays.
“You’ve got to have some kind of feeling that we can pull out the win,” senior guard Trevor Lyons said. “We’ve got to learn from these and make one more play.”