DeLovell Earls lived in the lane during his wondrously successful high school career at Colorado Springs School. He seldom roamed more than 10 feet from the rim.

I saw him play a half-dozen high school games and admired his soft-spoken toughness, his agility, his determination. But I always wondered if he could survive in college basketball, a world where giants dwell.

His 6-foot-5 frame was big by Colorado 2A high school standards. It’s below average for the college ranks.

But Earls is doing more than surviving. He’s thriving.

Earls, a sophomore forward, and his Air Force teammates thumped UNLV, 71-56, Wednesday night while 2,553 watched at Clune Arena. Earls collected 12 points, three assists and two rebounds in 21 minutes.

See a slideshow from the game here.

The stampede over Vegas serves a prelude to the loud madness of Saturday when CSU invades Clune. Expect a packed house, largely because two or three thousand CSU fans will be making the journey from Fort Collins.

Don’t expect a rout, despite what happened earlier this season when CSU trampled the Falcons by 39 points. These Falcons are an entirely different team when battling in the comfort of their own home.

Earls plays a role that’s been greatly missed in the Falcons lineup for the past five seasons. He’s a tough guy fully ready to tangle with CSU’s mass of humanity.

“I play a physical game,” Earls said. “I have to be physical down there or else I’m just going to get punked and they’ll walk all over me. I’m playing 6-foot-9, 240-pound guys.”

Finesse players make up the majority of Air Force’s lineup, and bruiser types often go looking for easy attacks. When an opponent delivers a cheap shot to one of the Falcons, that opponent can expect an unfriendly visit from Earls.

“I don’t like it when people mess with my teammates,” he said. “I’m not going to just let them punch us and not expect to get something back. I’m not going to do anything dirty, but you know.”

Yes, I know. For years, Air Force opponents have been punching the Falcons while knowing retribution would never arrive. Earls is right; he’s not dirty.

He is a good policeman. He makes sure his fellow Falcons are protected. This is good news. Air Force teams have thrived in the past decade when they bring a healthy, hostile aggression to the court.

“You need that competitive guy,” coach Dave Pilipovich said, “and he’s got that ‘you can’t push me’ attitude.”

Yet the main reason for Earls finding success at Air Force is not his rugged approach to the game. It’s his versatility.

Earls led CSS to a state title and a 65-7 record in his final three seasons by keeping his game primal. He dwelled in the lane, and it wasn’t difficult to guess what he was going to do next on offense.

He was heading to the rim.

He’s worked diligently to diversify his game. Three minutes into Wednesday’s win, Earls found himself alone in the dead corner. The Rebels had neglected to cover him.

He didn’t hesitate. His jumper is not a thing of beauty. He doesn’t utilize his legs enough, and his shot is flat. Didn’t matter. This 3-pointer dropped, and so did his next one.

He’s generous, especially for a player who was such a dominating star in high school. Earls first excelled as a center midfielder in soccer, and he plays basketball with the pass-first spirit of The Beautiful Game. He serves as a point forward for the Falcons, frustrating opponents with pinpoint bounce passes.

He will need all his toughness and all his precision on Saturday.

The Rams are coming to town.

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