Motivation isn’t generally a problem for Air Force, with its roster full of future military officers. But it’s the chief concern right now.
Spurned by the NIT, the Falcons must find something to gear them up as their postseason begins at Hawaii at 11 p.m. (7 p.m. in Honolulu) in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
“I think our attitudes will kind of go away once we get on the court,” senior point guard Todd Fletcher said. “We’ll put everything else aside and just get doing what we’re used to doing.”
Air Force (17-13) faces other issues, as well. Michael Lyons, who led the team with 17.7 ppg and was the only Falcon averaging in double figures, will not make the trip because of a knee injury. The road in general has been unkind for a team that is 3-10 away from home. There’s also the fact that Hawaii is no pushover, going 17-14 and 10-8 in the Big West.
The Rainbow Warriors have three players 6-foot-8 or taller who average a collective 39.6 points and 24.4 points - the kind of inside production from opponents that has given Air Force fits this season.
This game also begins at an extremely late hour for a group accustomed to waking up at 6 a.m.
But in all likelihood the outcome hinges on the mindset of the Falcons, who made no effort to hide their frustration at being left out of a more prestigious tournament despite an 8-8 record and sixth-place finish in a league that sent five to the NCAA Tournament.
“For me, I guess it’s just trying to be appreciative of having another game with the seniors on the team,” senior Mike Fitzgerald said. “I think that will be my big motivator.”
Coach Dave Pilipovich tried to put a positive spin on the situation with a reminder that the program won just 10 league games over the three previous seasons combined. Now the Falcons have a shot at making a run at a 20-win season, at winning a postseason tournament and using extra practices and games for development.
“When you look back at 57 years of Air Force basketball, this is only the seventh team that’s ever played in the postseason,” Pilipovich said. “So, for 50 years the uniforms have been packed away and the balls have been put away. We still get to play, and that’s a neat thing.”