Updated: March 8, 2013 at 12:00 am
Perhaps no class of basketball players has been directly involved in as many ups-and-downs as the one that will make its home finale Saturday.
This class entered at one of the program’s lowest points, played through a midseason coaching change, orchestrated at least a brief resurgence, came up with two of the Falcons’ three victories over ranked opponents and produced one of Air Force’s all-time great players.
“We’ve seen about everything,” said point guard Todd Fletcher, who ranks second in program history with 107 games started. “It’s been a crazy experience.”
Air Force’s five seniors – Taylor Broekhuis, Fletcher, Mike Fitzgerald, Kyle Green and Michael Lyons – have combined to play 12,302 minutes and score 4,046 points over the past two seasons. In terms of a program footprint, only the top five from the class of 2007 – Jacob Burtschi, John Frye, Matt McCraw, Dan Nwaelele and Nick Welch – have had a greater impact. That group combined for 13,537 minutes and 4,658 points.
The biggest difference is the 2007 group appeared in two NCAA Tournaments and went 90-35. This group is 55-65 (with at least two games remaining) and has tasted neither the NCAA Tournament nor the NIT.
Air Force had just completed its fall from those peak years and went 0-16 in the Mountain West the season before this group arrived. They provided little lift that first year, winning one league game. That improved to 6-10 the second year, as Lyons emerged as the team’s leading scorer. The following year a 1-6 start to league play led to the firing of coach Jeff Reynolds. Dave Pilipovich took over and completed a year that included three league wins. This year the Falcons jumped to a 5-2 start in the conference before their present 2-6 skid.
Several highlights have been included in those years. Air Force posted just its second win over a ranked opponent when it shocked San Diego State last season. It repeated that feat against the Aztecs this year, leading to the cadets storming the floor. There was also a sold-out game against Colorado State last month in which, despite Air Force losing 89-86, Lyons exploded for 45 points.
“We’ve seen everything, dealt with everything,“ Fitzgerald said. “It’s kind of what you want in a college experience, other than winning every game. Honestly, this experience is going to help me when I go out and do my job. I’ve been through a lot of troubles and different situations and I’ve learned a lot from basketball.”
The five seniors share an upcoming military commitment, but aside from that they are planning mostly different paths.
Green is the only one headed to flight training. He has had an interest in planes since childhood, when his mother, Julia Green, was a flight attendant. Green’s speech pattern quickened and his volume increased as he talked with excitement about the possibilities of manning C17s or A10s. He expects to serve 20 years in the Air Force before becoming a commercial pilot.
“I get a little excited about it,” Green said. “I’m the only one on the team that wants to fly right now. I’m trying to get the other guys to do it, too.”
Broekhuis and Fletcher will both serve in Los Angeles in financial roles. Both are unsure what their future in the military might entail, and how basketball might factor into their plans.
Fitzgerald is largely in the same situation, though he’ll be at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Fitzgerald’s older brother Dan played professional basketball internationally, a route Mike hasn’t ruled out.
Lyons, who ranks third all-time in scoring at Air Force, definitely intends to keep basketball in his plans. He has been invited to participate in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Virginia, a showcase for 64 of the nation’s top seniors to play in front of NBA and international general managers and scouts. Jeremy Lin is among the players who boosted his reputation at the PIT.
Lyons will stay at the academy next year and coach at the prep school, where his brother, Trevor, will attend.
“It will just be for one year,” Lyons said. “While I’m there I’m going to try to work it to where I can stay here. I’ll be able to work out a lot. I’ll just go from there.”
The future isn’t clear for this group either in the long or short term. They host conference champion New Mexico on Saturday, then they’ll play in the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas as either the No. 5 or 6 seed.
Regardless of what happens, this group’s place in academy history is secure. And it’s a legacy none of the five regret.
“I wouldn’t trade this, mostly because of those four guys in the locker room,” Broekhuis said. “I think the world of them and would do anything for them. Going through this with them hasn’t been all you could ask for, but it’s been a great experience.”