Air Force basketball ventures into new territory without five seniors

April 3, 2013
photo - AFA lost to CSU 89-86 Saturday, February 16, 2013 despite Michael Lyons putting up 45 points on the day. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
AFA lost to CSU 89-86 Saturday, February 16, 2013 despite Michael Lyons putting up 45 points on the day. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

A tweet from Michael Lyons concisely summed up Air Force’s basketball season, leaving plenty of characters to spare.

“We brought Clune Arena back,” the senior guard launched into social media.

That will certainly be the lasting legacy from this year’s group, which was led by Lyons and four other seniors. The Falcons, who had all but lost their crowd support, brought it back with an up-tempo style of play, a 13-2 home record (falling only to Colorado State and Wichita State – teams that are a combined 5-1 in the NCAA Tournament - by a total of six points) and an 8-8 record in a Mountain West conference that, before a forgettable March, was ranked by the RPI computers as the toughest in the nation.

Lyons, who averaged 17 points, became the first Air Force player to earn first-team all-conference honors in six years.

Clune came back to the tune of two sellouts, two stormed courts and more total fans than the previous year despite two fewer home dates.

For coach Dave Pilipovich, whose looser style of play helped the team increase its scoring average from 61.5 to 70 points over last season, the challenge becomes maintaining that momentum with Lyons, Taylor Broekhuis, Mike Fitzgerald, Todd Fletcher and Kyle Green all set for graduation.

“Take wins and losses away from it, we hope our style of play – we’ll continue to play a quicker pace – and how hard our young men play and how competitive we are, we hope that will keep our fans in Clune,” Pilipovich said.

Pilipovich believes the team defense can improve next year, same with rebounding. He just doesn’t know where the points are going to come from as the team loses more than 70 percent of its scoring.

Similarly, he’s not sure who will provide the leadership. Generally captains would have been named this past week and announced in the team’s mid-April banquet, but he’s delaying that this year to see who might emerge as the voice among the players.

The schedule will be vastly different next year. This year the Falcons played nonleague games against Colorado, Florida, Wichita State and Richmond. Next year they’ll have Colorado and Richmond, but both at home. The only true road games at this point will be at UC Davis and potentially at VMI as part of the Military Classic.

It’s certainly a scaled-back approach.

Plenty is surely about to change for his second full season at the helm, but Pilipovich isn’t sure it’s for the worse.

“This is more like a first year than the past year we had,” said Pilipoivch, his tense already shifting to putting 2013-14 in the present. “You’re kind of starting with some inexperience and some youth and some unknowns. Maybe our roots will be a little bit deeper as the head coach and the staff. But I wish those other guys were back for another year.”

Because of Air Force’s appointment process, not to mention basic training, the recruiting classes are never a sure thing and coaches are not allowed to discuss them publically. It is believed the Falcons will add at least three players who are at least 6-foot-7 – John Moser of Indiana, Tim Lewis of Grand Junction and Austin Flues of Portland, Ore.

Guard Matt Mooney from Chicago has a reputation as a great shooter and could help the team right away.

Kyle Broekhuis, Taylor’s brother, is expected to join the team out of the prep school and Lyons’ brother, Trevor, has committed to the prep school for next season along with several others, including Dezmond James (brother of women’s player Dymond James and a former Lewis-Palmer player).

On the recruiting trail, Pilipovich said he has so many positive things to share – the sellouts, three wins over ranked teams in the past 13 months, the exposure of the league, and on and on – and that recruits are not only hearing him, but are already aware of some of it because they’ve seen the highlights on ESPN.

Air Force’s season ended March 24 with a loss at Weber State in the second round of the Tournament. It’s a game Air Force could have hosted if it wanted to, but finances kept it on the road. As Fletcher told Pilipovich, it was probably a good thing, because there’s no way the Falcons could have topped their home finale (a win over New Mexico on a last-second 3-pointer in front of a sellout crowd).

Fletcher’s point could probably extend to next season as well, as Air Force will have a tough time replicating the 18-win effort that recently ended.

But Pilipovich, his staff and a new crop of players will try. And they’ll see if they can keep Clune in the process.

“I couldn’t have dreamt for a better first year,” Pilipovich said. “I knew it was going to stop sometime, but it was such a joy to be around these guys every day.

“But we’ve got a hard-working group. They get along really well and hopefully we’ll surprise some people.”

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