Updated: January 7, 2013 at 12:00 am
In every Air Force men's basketball locker hangs a reminder of the task at hand.
On a printed out sheet reads the Mountain West coaches' preseason picks, with Air Force in last place by a distant margin. Along with that reads a note from coach Dave Pilipovich saying "This is what they thought of us. What do you feel about this and what are you going to do to change this?"
The Falcons (8-4) weren't picked last as a slight, but as the result of the Mountain West's ascent to one of the best basketball conferences in the nation – backed by a No. 2 RPI ranking that puts it behind only the Big Ten.
Of the Mountain West's nine teams, six were ranked among the top 41 in RPI through Sunday. New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and Wyoming each appeared this week in either the AP or USA Today/coaches' top-25 polls.
“We won’t be a favorite in a game the rest of the year,” Pilipovich said.
But that's not to say Air Force isn't going into the conference season – which starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday when it hosts league newcomer Nevada (9-5) – without excitement.
“How many kids can say they play top 25-ranked teams every other day?” senior center Taylor Broekhuis said. “It’s a good challenge for us.”
To prepare for the grind, Air Force scheduled four quality opponents among its 12-game nonconference schedule. It lost them all, but not without seeing glimpses of hope.
The Falcons were within two points with 12 minutes remaining at Colorado (No. 6 RPI through Sunday) before falling off down the stretch. Same was true against Florida (No. 10 RPI). They lost by just three points to Wichita State (No. 17 RPI) in the best home test.
The only blowout loss came at Richmond, which benefited from an unusually hot night as it hit 16-of-25 3-pointers and jumped to an early lead.
“There’s been some bright spots. There haven’t been enough,” said senior guard Michael Lyons, who leads Air Force and ranks second in the conference with 19.6 points per game. “It would be a little brighter if we could actually win those games. But there’s definitely been things from each game that we can take and build on.”
The Falcons have kept themselves in games by taking care of the ball (they lead the MWC with a plus-4.58 turnover margin), finding the open man (they rank second in the league with 15.8 assists per game) and shooting (they are second in both overall field-goal percentage at 48.1 percent and 3-point percentage at 39 percent).
The shortcomings for the Falcons, as usual, come from admittedly being outsized and outmuscled by many opponents. Against Colorado, Florida and Wichita State the Falcons were outrebounded 116-68 and outscored 112-70 in the paint.
“We have to be more aggressive and we have to be more determined,” Pilipovich said. “We’ve got to be the first on the floor and the first to take a charge. And until we get that mindset with everybody, we’re going to get the competing results and not the winning results.”
The Falcons start four seniors, which is both a blessing in terms of experience and a curse in that much of that experience has been on the losing side. Far removed from the NCAA Tournament teams of 2004 and 2006, this class has gone a combined 10-36 in the league over the past three seasons.
The younger guys, particularly sophomore Justin Hammonds, bring a more upbeat – if somewhat naive – perspective. Hammonds was there as the Falcons took UNLV to overtime last year and helped as they beat San Diego State for just the second victory in school history over a ranked opponent.
“We’ve shown that we can do it,” said Hammonds, who just returned after a semester lost to academic ineligibility. “Honestly, there’s no reason we shouldn’t win most of these games in our conference. “
Pilipovich wasn't ready to predict wins and losses in the league, but he knows the task is tall.
“We’ve got to win our games at home and sneak a few on the road," Pilipovich said. “We’ve got to be dialed in every game. We don’t have as much margin for error as some of the other teams because of their talent and their strength. But we’re excited about it.”