When coach Dave Pilipovich talks about his surging men's basketball team, he often declines to include himself. He starts talking about “we,” stops, and corrects himself.
“They,” he says, making sure to give all credit to Air Force players who have stunned everyone, including themselves, by arriving near the top of the Mountain West Conference.
A party broke out seconds after Air Force defeated No. 22 San Diego State, 70-67, at Clune Arena, so long a sad basketball destination. Cadets stormed the court and everyone in the crowd other than a few grumpy Aztecs fans were standing and clapping and shouting.
This victory will be called an upset, but it would more accurately be described as an announcement. The Falcons (14-6 overall, 5-2 in MWC) boast the talent, especially on offense, and the relentless drive required to remain near the top of the Mountain West.
On Wednesday, Pilipovich and his Falcons travel to New Mexico with a chance to seize the conference lead. I’m struggling to believe I just typed those words.
Pilipovich deserves credit for rescuing a lost basketball program. Over the past three seasons, the Falcons lost 36 of 46 MWC games. Players looked dazed on the court. Confusion reigned. Effort was lacking.
My favorite moment from Saturday’s win came with 3:03 left and Air Force leading 64-62. During much of the second half, Aztecs star Jamaal Franklin toyed with Air Force’s defense while enjoying the aid of referees who gave him the Michael Jordan treatment. If a Falcon touched Franklin, it was a foul.
A pass was coming to Franklin near the basket when senior forward Mike Fitzgerald launched himself at the ball. It was a bold, reckless move, but Fitzgerald tipped the ball away, ending San Diego State’s possession. This brand of intense, brash play carried the Falcons to the win.
A few weeks ago, Fitzgerald said he and his teammates have little choice but to believe in themselves and play with complete abandon. Pilipovich, Fitzgerald said, trusts in his players and never quits taking chances on them.
When Pilipovich was handed Air Force’s team in March, I believed it was a mistake. A massive one. Pilipovich resided in the middle of Air Force’s basketball wreckage, and his promotion seemed a desperate move by athletic director Hans Mueh. I was not alone in my view.
Mueh was unmoved. He saw an ideal coach for his basketball team. Pilipovich, after working as Falcons assistant for nearly five seasons, understood academy culture. Mueh believed Pilipovich would know, as hockey coach Frank Serratore knows, when it was time to quit pushing and allow his weary athletes time of rest.
And he believed Pilipovich’s bubbly, thrilled-to-be-alive personality could lift a fallen team.
Everyone agreed Pilipovich was a kind, caring man, but perhaps only Mueh was convinced Pilipovich could find success at one of the toughest jobs in college basketball.
I had a multitude of doubts. Mueh had none.
I was wrong. He was right.
“Dave’s a pretty humble guy,” Mueh said, “and he’s a hell of a basketball coach.”
To hear Pilipovich talk, you would believe this team coaches itself. The seniors, he keeps saying, provide the stability and leadership.
“They coach each other a lot,” Pilipovich said.
There he goes again, talking about “they,” giving all credit to “they.”
I admire the humility, coach. I really do.
But you belong at the front of this entertaining, surprising parade.