Air Force seems to have the attention of its audience. Now what will it do with it?
Advance ticket sales for Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against No. 22 San Diego State went past 3,000 by noon Friday. That’s nearly double the Falcons’ average home attendance this season and, judging by Wednesday’s walk-up crowd of 1,000 against Fresno State, the figure could surge to around 5,000.
It’s been a while since 5,000 people showed up to watch the Falcons. Clune Arena packed in 6,028 on Feb. 9, 2011, but much of that crowd was on hand to see BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. Before that it took an early season, in-state matchup with Northern Colorado on Nov. 21, 2009 to eclipse the 5,000 mark.
The sudden interest is the result of Air Force’s four-game winning streak, an offense that has upped its per-game average by a dozen points and a senior-laden team that seems poised to make a move into the upper echelon of a league ranked as the second best in the nation.
“It’s exciting, I don’t want this to stop,” athletic director Hans Mueh said. “I’d like this bandwagon to continue. I know the kids would too. They’re going to keep playing hard.”
The Falcons (13-6, 4-2 Mountain West) have been building to this throughout the season. The nonconference schedule revealed signs of potential, with the Falcons hanging with Colorado, Florida and Wichita State in eventual losses. All three of those opponents have been ranked at times this year, with the Gators sitting at No. 4.
In the Mountain West the Falcons have proven they’re far better than their last-place spot in preseason polls. Wins at Wyoming and home victories over Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada have proven that. They had shots at the end of regulation and overtime to win at UNLV as well.
The close calls and wins over less-than-stellar opponents – even if those were the games Air Force didn’t win in recent years – did little to energize the fan base. Wednesday’s victory over Fresno State drew just 2,009 fans, or roughly half of what Colorado State averages; and the Rams are the second-worst drawing team in the Mountain West. New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV each average more than 12,400.
So it was no surprise when coach Dave Pilipovich took the microphone after the game and pleaded with fans to come back Saturday and bring a neighbor – even if it was a neighbor they don’t even really know.
It appears they have listened.
Now, of course, comes the tough part, which is punctuating the on-court climb with a victory over the Aztecs. The Falcons beat them last year, but San Diego State (16-4, 4-2) was without conference Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin.
“It’s a big game for both teams,” said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, whose team is tied with Air Force and two others for second place in the league.
Regardless of the outcome, Pilipovich just hopes to see his players experience a taste of a charged, high-energy college basketball environment on their floor.
“They are working their tails off and they are doing everything we ask of a cadet-athlete in all aspects of the academy,” he said. “It would be neat to see them run out of that tunnel and see a great crowd. We need more people and (we’ll) see what happens.”