Air Force basketball notes: Schedule creates controversy

By Brent Briggeman Updated: December 31, 2013 at 9:15 pm • Published: December 31, 2013 | 8:45 pm 0

After jumping from nine to 11 teams this season, the Mountain West had to decide how to handle the schedule.

Last season, everybody played everybody else twice in a 16-game league schedule. To do that again would have required 20 conference games and limited teams' ability to manipulate the nonconference schedule to their advantage - either to build RPI or, in the case of Air Force, attempt to build confidence.

The compromise was an 18-game schedule, as each team was given, at random, one team that it would play only at home and another that it would play only on the road.

That schedule, which still didn't please everyone, begins Wednesday.

First-year New Mexico coach Craig Neal has a difficult time finding home games, particularly with quality programs.

"When we've won, what, 86 percent of our games at home, it's hard for me to say to Kansas that I'll play you 2-for-1," Neal said. "They'll buy me, but they're not going to come to us.

"I'd rather have Air Force and Fresno State coming in than playing some of the schools that I have to play. That's why I'm not opposed to playing 20."

Air Force misses out on a trip to Utah State this season and a home game against New Mexico. Dodging two of the conference's better teams is a major break for the Falcons, but it underscores the imbalance of a schedule that is not the same across the board.

"You could have an eight-hour discussion on the scheduling," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "It's gotten to be a nightmare.

"The fairest thing is just play everybody twice."

A major argument for fewer conference games was the opportunity to boost the conference RPI. Last year, the Mountain West was consistently ranked in the nation's top three - reaching No. 1 for a while. This year it enters conference play at No. 9.

An eye-catching floor, by design

There will be no mistaking a basketball game televised from the gym of Mountain West newcomer San Jose State. And that was the point.

Much like the blue turf at Boise State, the Spartans have an unmistakable floor with five giant, shield-wielding Spartans painted on one side from 3-point line to 3-point line.

"I freakin' love it," first-year San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik said. "I love it. Our guys love it. They really do. They're like, 'Coach, we can't lose on that floor.'

"This is by far the most unique thing I've ever been around. I think it's going to take on a life all its own."

The floor was the brainchild of athletic director Gene Bleymaier, who came to San Jose State after holding the same position at Boise State. He loved the way the blue turf helped create a brand for the Broncos and wanted to bring a similarly memorable quality to a new program.

The same company handled the design and installation that put in the floor at Oregon.

"You're going to know when watching TV that it's San Jose State," Wojcik said. "You're going to remember that."

(Random Colorado Springs connection: Wojcik's brother, Doug, is the coach at College of Charleston, making them one of seven brother combos who are active coaches at Division I programs. The third-leading scorer for Doug Wojcik's team in Charleston is Cheyenne Mountain graduate Canyon Barry.)

Advantage Air Force?

If ever there was a season for Air Force to capitalize on the mystique of playing at a service academy, this is it.

Wednesday's opponent, Utah State, hasn't played against Air Force in 13 years. San Jose State hasn't been at the academy since 1997. Fresno State has been here just once since 1997.

Nevada has played at Clune Arena just once and Boise State twice.

As the conference continues to take shape and teams gain familiarity with opposing venues, the Falcons may stand to benefit the most because of their small gym located in the middle of a military institution. That advantage helped them to a 7-1 home record in the conference last year (compared to 1-7 away).

"I don't know how to describe it, but you just drive in there and say, 'Whoa, we're definitely at a military spot,'" Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "It's just a different feel. Anybody who's been in there knows what I'm saying. And trying to win there, I remember (when coaching at Colorado State) feeling like, 'Gosh, I've got to have this one,' and it was tough to get it. You don't just waltz in there to the academy and win, so our players better be ready."

How they were picked

Reviewing the preseason predicted order of finish for the Mountain West with an update of how teams have done so far.

1. New Mexico (9-3)

A transition year under new coach Craig Neal hasn't been entirely smooth, with a loss to New Mexico State standing out as the low point.

2t. Boise State (10-3)

Despite losses to Kentucky, Iowa State and St. Mary's, the Broncos played the league's toughest nonconference schedule and are ranked No. 22 in RPI.

2t. UNLV (9-4)

The transfer-loaded Rebels have won six straight after a 3-4 start.

4. San Diego State (10-1)

The conference's only ranked team, the No. 21 Aztecs haven't lost since a 69-60 setback on Nov. 14 to now-No. 1 Arizona.

5. Utah State (10-2)

The Aggies went 3-2 against teams ranked in the RPI's top 100, the losses coming at BYU and home vs. Pacific.

6. Colorado State (9-4)

The Rams have had a roster overhaul nearly as complete as Air Force's, and they've played a schedule nearly as easy to aid in the adjustment.

7. Wyoming (8-4)

Surrendering just 61.7 points per game, the Cowboys again feature one of the league's stingiest defenses.

8. Fresno State (7-6)

The Bulldogs have been the worst rebounding team in the conference, posting the league's only negative margin.

9. Nevada (5-8)

With a minus-3.2 average scoring differential, the Wolf Pack are the only team in the conference being outscored by their competition.

10. Air Force (6-5)

The Falcons are ranked at the bottom on the Mountain West and No. 324 nationally in RPI thanks in large part to a strength of schedule ranked No. 334.

11. San Jose State (6-6)

Predictably, the Spartans have struggled, but the conference's most prolific 3-point shooting team will keep itself in plenty of games.

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