Dave Pilipovich wants to make one thing clear:
“Remember, we were picked to finish ninth in the conference,” he said. “Remember that.”
The Air Force men's basketball coach enters the Mountain West Conference portion of his schedule with few believers residing in his corner. The MWC enjoys a renaissance, but almost no one sees the Falcons joining in the good times.
There were many close votes in our nation this fall, but the ballot for the MWC basement was virtually unanimous. Everyone picked the Falcons.
That’s good news for Pilipovich and his players.
This team is expected to do nothing. Predictions of doom for the Falcons make sense. They’ve lost 36 of their past 46 MWC games.
But this team is blessed with the talent to surprise. This is the most gifted since the 2006-2007 team that soared as high as No. 11 in the national rankings.
The undermanned 2007-2008 team finished 8-8 in conference, largely because the players had been raised in a winning culture. When those Falcons stepped on the court for an MWC game, they expected to win.
That culture has been battered for the past four seasons, but relatively good times could return to Clune in 2013.
Please understand; I’m not predicting the Falcons will shock everyone, including themselves, and fly to the NCAA Tournament. I am saying this team could flirt with a .500 record in the conference.
The bench – The only Air Force starters who should feel secure are center Taylor Broekhuis and guard/forward Michael Lyons. The margin between the other starters and their backups is slim.
This is mostly a compliment to the backups. Cameron Michael, Justin Hammonds, Kyle Green and Tre’ Coggins lead a group of understudies that often defeats the starting five in practice. The Air Force bench is borderline defiant, filled with players who believe they deserve more court time.
This confidence produces spirited practices. This confidence could make this team dangerous to MWC opponents.
If Todd Fletcher, Mike Fitzgerald and DeLovell Earls are wise, and I believe they are, they will attack every practice and game as if they are competing for their jobs.
The weariness – The Falcons are led by a senior quintet that has spent the past three winters wandering across the Rocky Mountain region and finding ways to lose.
The seniors want to radically change their image before they depart.
Hatred of losing is the key ingredient to becoming a winner. During Air Force’s winning run from 2003-2007, the rosters was jammed with players – A.J. Kuhle, Jacob Burtschi, Nick Welch, Tim Anderson – who despised defeat. The Falcons won 43 MWC games in four seasons after winning a total of 45 conference games from 1988-2003. Hatred of losing transformed the program.
At least a touch of that precious hatred is back in the hearts of the Falcons.
The star – Lyons is the most talented player to roam the court for the Falcons in the past decade. On certain nights, he takes command and soars as the best player on the court. When Colorado invaded Clune last season, Lyons nearly defeated the Buffs all by himself.
He can shoot. He can drive. He can climb to air space high above the rim. He can drop 3s.
I understand Lyons’ potential. Pilipovich understands Lyons’ potential. I’m not sure Lyons understands his potential.
His final days are here. I see Lyons placing his teammates on his shoulders and carrying them to a few improbable victories.
He might even start his carrying Wednesday night against Nevada.