For years, the softest team in the Mountain West played its basketball games on the edge of Colorado Springs. Those days have ended.
The Falcons could finish with a winning record in the Mountain West for the first time since 2006-2007, and a prime reason is this team approaches games prepared for rugged, physical struggle.
“We’re not as soft as we used to be, to be honest,” said Air Force’s Michael Lyons a few minutes after Tuesday’s 72-66 victor over Wyoming. “We’re a lot tougher.”
A moment immediately after the game revealed Air Force’s new we-don’t-back-down approach. In the late seconds, Wyoming star Leonard Washington and Lyons collided on the baseline and exchanged words.
I sensed the postgame handshake line would offer a few moments of drama. Washington is a noble basketball warrior. So is Lyons. A clash was inevitable.
Washington wanted to chat with Lyons in the line. He said a few words to Air Force’s star.
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t positive,” Lyons said with a smile.
Washington stands 6-foot-7 and weighs more than his listed 230 pounds. His conversation with Lyons ended when Air Force forward DeLovell Earls walked over.
“Get out of here,” Earls said. “Just get out of here.”
Two extremely large young men faced each other for an instant, and then coaches and teammates brought peace to the brief skirmish. No violence invaded the court.
But a statement had been made.
Earls stood up for his teammate. He stood face-to-face with one of the most fearsome players in the conference. He refused to back down. Washington declined to discuss the incident.
“We’re not as passive as we were in the past,” Lyons said. “We’re a lot tougher and we’re not going to let people just run us over because we’re Air Force. We’re going to handle ourselves with class, but at the same time we’re not pushovers either.”
Lyons appreciated Earls’ courage, but emphasized he would have done the same. This is, Lyons said, a team filled with players who stand up for each other.
As the Dave Pilipovich era moves forward, he should embrace a slightly sinister attitude. The Falcons have found success when tough guys – A.J. Kuhle, Jacob Burtschi, Keith Maren – inhabit the roster.
I’ve talked with Air Force fans who wonder about the program’s future. The Falcons lose four of five starters to graduation.
But next season should offer a more rugged version of the Falcons. Kamryn Williams and Earls and Justin Hammonds and Chase Kammerer savor engaging in properly violent behavior under the basket. The talent level may be down. The aggression level will be up.
Williams showed that aggression at every opportunity. Hewas superlative against Wyoming, slamming his way to 25 points.
“Dunking is part of being tough,” Lyons said, speaking the truth.
In the first half, Washington came out to challenge Williams near the free-throw line. Williams head faked Washington right and then roared to the left of the free-throw line. He ended his ride through the air with a dunk.
A small crowd celebrated. The Air Force bench danced and shouted.
For the first time in years, a tough, audacious spirit lives in this Air Force team.