Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Air Force men's basketball team needs to focus on the finishes

By Brent Briggeman Updated: March 13, 2014 at 7:35 pm

For about 35 minutes per game, Air Force exceeded all expectations this season.

It's those final five minutes that the Falcons hope to address in the future.

"We've just got to finish," coach Dave Pilipovich said after the worst collapse of them all, a 61-59 loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West Tournament that saw his team lose a 15-point lead in the final six minutes. "Once we do that, we'll be OK."

Six of Air Force's losses this season saw the Falcons squander leads or, in one case, make a mental mistake that led to a loss in a tie game. Flip those outcomes and the Falcons' 12-18 record would have been reversed, an 18-12 mark that would have actually been better than the 18-14 season that a senior-laden group posted in 2012-13.

Air Force didn't seem caught up on what might have been, but rather talked of building upon this with a group that stands to return its top nine scorers next season.

If this was a building project, then those first 35 minutes represent the foundation.

"I think that comes with maturity," said point guard Tre' Coggins, the team's leading scorer at 16 points per game, "just being in that situation and being able to finish games."

Well, the Falcons have been in those situations now.

"We grew so much this year," Pilipovich said. "Now, when this team takes the stage again next year for the first game, the experience will show."

The general recipe for success at Air Force is to have experience and depth. There's no question that the Falcons will field an experienced squad next year that will include five key seniors, but the depth remains a question.

If there's one project Air Force didn't address this year it was the development of its bench. The team used six players to account for 84 percent of its points, and in conference games that number grew to 92 percent. Freshmen like Hayden Graham and Darrius Parker would show flashes of promise, then go several games without an appearance. Neither Graham nor Parker played in Wednesday's season-ending defeat.

By reluctantly using its bench, Air Force had three players average more than 34 minutes in conference games. It's no surprise that each saw his shooting percentage drop as those games wore on.

Air Force had other challenges as well. Assistant coach Drew Long spent all but a handful of games away from the team battling cancer. Co-captains DeLovell Earls and Kamryn Williams missed much of the nonconference season with leg injuries. Coggins was suspended for three games as the staff tried to correct a pattern of behavior that it deemed detrimental to the sophomore's athletic, academic and military experience at the academy. Finally, Marek Olesinski fell into a horrid shooting slump, making just 1 of his final 19 attempts from 3-point range.

But there was plenty of good in there as well. The Falcons, for as bad as they looked in November, losing to Northern Colorado and Division?II Regis in games that didn't count, then VMI and Jackson State in games that did count, rebounded to win at UNLV, knock off Boise State on an emotional senior day and go 6-12 in a Mountain West that, while not what it was in 2012-13, still ranks as a top 10 conference according to RPI.

At least one publication predicted the Falcons would win just one conference game.

It was a season mostly filled with lows, which was expected considering the personnel it had lost, but with some highs, which were mostly a surprise.

Pilipovich, even in the moments after the program's most bitter defeat in recent memory, chose to focus on the positives - even in those games that got away.

"We did some good things to have those leads with five minutes to go," Pilipovich said.

The next seven months will be spent figuring out how to stretch that success to a full 40 minutes.

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