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Air Force finding short bench might not work in conference play

January 28, 2014 Updated: January 28, 2014 at 5:28 pm
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Air Force's Darrius Parker, 45, could be in line for more minutes as the Falcons look to deepen their playing rotation. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

A rare in-conference off weekend gave the Air Force men's basketball team time both to refresh and rethink a few things.

The break was brutally needed for a starting five who are each averaging more than 30 minutes a game since the start of the conference season, as the team has settled in on what amounts to a six-man rotation. DeLovell Earls, the sixth man, is averaging 15 minutes. Aside from him, Zach Kocur and Chase Kammerer are seeing about seven minutes per game and no one else has made anything more than brief cameos.

That may change soon.

"I am going to look into getting some more guys into the rotation this week," said coach Dave Pilipovich, whose team departed Tuesday for a five-day, two-game trip that will take it first to Boise State on Wednesday and then to Nevada on Saturday.

The Falcons were clearly at their best at the beginning of the conference season following a restful December that included just four games. They opened the Mountain West season with upsets of Utah State and UNLV. They then showed remarkable resiliency in games against Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State, shooting a combined 60 percent in the second half of those contests despite a 1-2 record.

That kick hasn't been there in the past two games.

A five-point lead slipped away at Colorado State in the final five minutes and a 15-point cushion against Wyoming proved to be not enough in a crushing home loss Jan. 22.

The Falcons are doing everything you might expect from a team that has tired legs. After shooting better than 50 percent in four of the first five conference games, the Falcons have fallen short of 45 percent in each of the past two games. Turnovers, which have been a constant source of frustration, have gotten worse of late. The Falcons gave the ball away an average of 13 times in the first four league games and 17 times per game over the past three.

The Falcons are fouling more often, their rebounding margin is dropping and they've dropped four out of five games. The team clearly needed a chance to get refreshed, but it seems that what it needs is more than the sort of temporary relief that an off weekend can provide.

Pilipovich has tracked the numbers of other teams in the league and has found that Air Force's slim rotation is in keeping with the conference norm. Of course, other schools don't require that their players be out of bed before 7 a.m. each day and can control things like getting players off their feet at certain times and generally keeping the mental and physical strains at a manageable level.

"Some places may just be online courses, so they're home in their apartments or dorms taking a class with ESPN on the other TV and then they come to practice," Pilipovich said. "We're not doing that here. The rigors they have day in and day out here probably play into that."

Pilipovich said freshman Hayden Graham will likely see more time to spell perimeter players like Max Yon and Tre' Coggins, or perhaps play with both when the team goes to a smaller lineup. On the inside, freshman Darrius Parker will be asked to provide the kind of high-energy minutes he did during the nonconference season when he started three consecutive games.

"We've been trying to get him to be more aggressive, that's the big thing for him is getting to the basket, getting to the boards," Pilipovich said of Parker. "We need someone in there who's going to rebound the ball and defend at the post.

"He's been good in responding to that."

Perhaps no player needs help from the bench more than Coggins. The sophomore point guard strung together four consecutive games of 20-plus points as he attacked the start of the conference season, but he's scored just 19 points on 7-of-22 shooting in the two games since.

"Refreshed and ready to go to work," Coggins said on his Twitter account. "Big week."

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