Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich has talked frequently in recent weeks about the “swagger” returning to his basketball team, and his once-downtrodden team has earned the right to walk proud.
But here’s the big question for Pilipovich and the Falcons as they seek a satisfying conclusion to their surprising climb in the Mountain West Conference:
Will this swagger start traveling?
The Falcons have earned 10 wins in 11 games at home, and the lone loss was an impressive effort against Wichita State, which has spent much of the season in the Top 25.
On Saturday, Air Force crafted one of the most memorable wins in academy basketball history. The Falcons dropped San Diego State, inspiring cadets to storm the court. It was a superlative effort from a team that had long struggled.
Alas, life on the road has offered few basketball celebrations for Air Force. The Falcons have lost six of 10 away from the comfort of Clune Arena, and the losses have often been ugly. Air Force lost by 15 to Colorado, 17 to Florida, 23 to Richmond and 39 to Colorado State.
In the latest episode of road futility, Air Force lost Wednesday by 23 to No. 15 New Mexico at the always zany and hostile Pit in Albuquerque.
“You feel more comfortable at home,” Pilipovich said by phone Thursday morning a few minutes before boarding a flight to Reno for Saturday’s game against Nevada. “We’ve got to have more confidence and swagger on the road to be successful, no doubt.”
Success is a new experience for this Air Force team. For the past four winters, the Falcons have wandered around various locales in the Mountain West and lost virtually every night.
When the Falcons walked into The Pit on Wednesday, they had a chance to seize a share of the Mountain West lead.
This was a massive leap forward for a program that lost 36 of 46 MWC games in its previous three seasons. Point guard Todd Fletcher fully believed the Falcons could deliver an upset.
“I felt very confident,” Fletcher said.
That confidence soon faded. New Mexico coach Steve Alford used a ruthless, effective strategy to maul Air Force defenders. Alford had seen video of CSU’s rampage over the Falcons, and ordered his offense to seek point-blank shots.
“They kept going inside and kind of punishing us,” Fletcher said of the Lobos' attack. If you remove “kind of,” Fletcher’s description is accurate.
For reasons Pilipovich can’t fully comprehend, his already undersized team plays even smaller on the road.
“We’re not going to get any bigger,” Pilipovich said. “We’ve got to get tougher.”
He better work quickly. It’s difficult to keep your swagger after a double-digit loss.
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