Air Force basketball is staring down its biggest week in six years.
The Falcons host Fresno State on Wednesday and No. 22 San Diego State on Saturday. Two victories would catapult Air Force into the top two or three of the nation’s second best conference (according to RPI). Perhaps more importantly, this is a chance to awaken a fan base that largely disappeared over the past six years.
The stakes haven’t been this high since for the program since a mid-2000s peak that included a couple of trips to the NCAA Tournament and the NIT semifinals.
“It is a big week,” senior Taylor Broekhuis said. “But we can’t start looking too far ahead.”
The opportunity to put Air Force into the national, or at least local, conversation is a major motivator for Broekhuis. He was at Colorado Springs Christian School during the Falcons’ run between 2003-07, and he remembers when tickets to Clune Arena were tough to find. Now the Falcons rank last in the conference in home attendance by a wide margin, drawing just 1,821 fans per game (Colorado State is second to last at 4,189 for home games; the league average is 8,228).
“Sometimes it’s a little frustrating, but we also have to earn the respect,” Broekhuis said. “The past few years we haven’t been great. We’ve been good at points, but we haven’t been great. You’re going to have to provide some entertainment for people to come watch. Hopefully we can get to that point.”
The Falcons (12-6, 3-2 Mountain West) have certainly given their fans more to watch this year than in recent seasons. They have won three in a row after the beginning of the conference season for the first time since 2007 and have scrapped a slow-down offense for one that is averaging 73.6 points per game.
“Any player would want more fans,” senior Mike Fitzgerald said. “We know this isn’t like every college. We know our cadets are busier, probably, than most college students. We’re going to do everything we can to bring in more fans. We want to get this place rocking.”
Air Force’s only league losses thus far have come in overtime at UNLV and in a blowout four days later at Colorado State. It was then that coach Dave Pilipovich highlighted the next four games - Boise State, New Orleans, at Wyoming and Wednesday’s matchup with Fresno State – as being a chance for the team to create an identity. The team has responded, winning all three of those games thus far.
Air Force will be heavily favored against Fresno State (7-12, 1-5) and knows after beating San Diego State at Clune Arena last year that knocking off the Aztecs is doable. Besides, San Diego State (16-4, 4-2) lost this season at Wyoming, the same place Air Force just posted a wire-to-wire victory over on Saturday.
The Falcons have shot up to No. 71 in the RPI and two wins here would put them into a position where a postseason berth of some kind would seem far more probable.
“It’s a big stretch for us,” leading scorer Michael Lyons said. “But we try not to make any game out to be more important than any other.”