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Air Force basketball toying with idea of major changes for Mountain West Tournament

March 7, 2017 Updated: March 8, 2017 at 10:23 am
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Air Force guard CJ Siples, front, congratulates Air Force Falcons forward Hayden Graham. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

LAS VEGAS - Air Force basketball is mulling a move that, even as the No. 10 seed, could make it the story of the Mountain West Tournament.

There's a chance, albeit slim, that coach Dave Pilipovich could flip his entire starting lineup on Wednesday as the postseason begins with a 2:30 p.m. game against No. 7 Wyoming. And even if the actual starters don't change, the bulk of the minutes could go to different players.

"I wouldn't say it hasn't crossed my mind," Pilipovich said.

What would the Falcons (11-20) have to lose? They have lost 20 of their past 26 games. Their 0-3 finish included two demoralizing blowouts and another loss in which they managed just 38 points.

But since February, some of the most inspired play has come from the reserves. In an 83-74 loss to Wyoming (18-13) on Feb. 4, Air Force fell behind by 22 points before a five-for-five substitution for younger players. With Pervis Louder and Dane Norman leading the way, the Falcons cut the deficit to six points.

"They gave us some great energy. They were aggressive on the defensive end; limited their shot opportunities," coach Dave Pilipovich said. "And then we attacked the rim on our end. That's the start we've got to have from whoever we go with, and we're not sure where we'll go with the initial lineup."

The bench played a huge role in upsetting San Diego State on Jan. 24. Even in Saturday's regular-season finale, the most watchable portion of a 28-point loss was the second-half stretch in which freshmen Sid Tomes, Caleb Morris, Ryan Swan and Lavelle Scottie were on the floor with sophomore Pervis Louder.

There was a moment during that time on Saturday that made Pilipovich excited about working with that group now and in the future.

Two straight possessions ended with quick, ill-advised shots for Air Force. During the next stoppage, two freshmen talked with the shooter.

"They said, in some choice words, we don't need that right now, that's a poor shot, let's move the ball," Pilipovich said. "And in response, that freshman said, 'You're right. I was wrong. I'll be better.' That was good. That was good to hear. It was good coaching and critique from the two, and it was even better from the recipient. That was really encouraging. That's why I think that group can do some things."

But will they be allowed to do some things on Wednesday? Sure, many of the youngsters will play and have consistently. Scottie has turned into one of the team's most consistent scorers, reaching double figures in five of the past seven games. Scottie, Louder, Norman and Tomes have each started games this year.

But rarely have those players - particularly the freshmen - logged key minutes together. And it's together that they are most comfortable after playing together last year at the prep school and seeing the bulk of time on the scout team this season.

Pilipovich indicated he wouldn't likely make a drastic lineup change. But he also admitted that if he were to do so he wouldn't likely reveal that surprise in advance.

The Falcons gathered as a team on Sunday to get a jump on preparation for a Cowboys team that has beaten them twice by an average of 10.5 points. Pilipovich prepared the team for the possibility of some changes.

"We told them that we're going to go with the most active and most productive on the floor," he said. "Now you're in tournament play, you don't get that second game. You owe it to the program to put your best out there no matter what class they are."

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