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David Ramsey: Yes, Air Force once ruled Mountain West basketball and rode to NCAA Tournament

March 20, 2017 Updated: March 20, 2017 at 8:26 pm
Caption +
Air Force forward Jacob Burtschi makes a pass around North Carolina forward David Noel (34) during a first-round game of the NCAA Tournament on March 18, 2004 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. (Photo courtesy of the Denver Post)

A.J. Kuhle served as a vital piece on Colorado's most surprising and overachieving college sports team of the 21st century.

The 2003-04 Air Force basketball team won the Mountain West regular-season title, conquering teams that boasted future NBA lottery picks.

The Falcons placed a severe scare into North Carolina in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, leading deep into the second half. The Tar Heels, with essentially the same roster, won the national title a year later.

Air Force finished 12-2 in the Mountain West, impressive from any angle. But get this: In the 10 seasons before the title, the Falcons lost 144 of 174 conference games.

How did this seemingly miraculous season happen?


Kuhle started for California state high school championship team, but he was a lightly recruited 6-foot-3 forward. His most crucial skill as a player was his mind, the most overlooked talent in recruiting.

Coach Joe Scott arrived at the academy from Princeton in 2000 with an unlikely vision. He believed, with no reason to believe, that he could resurrect Air Force's basketball program. And, yes, I realize resurrection first requires a death.

Kuhle soon became one of Scott's first fellow travelers in an unlikely quest to rule the Mountain West. Scott believed in him when few other Division I coaches showed belief.

"Air Force offered opportunity," Kuhle said over lunch last week.

Scott offered the same opportunity to Nick Welch, Tim Keller, Antoine Hood, Joel Gerlach and Jacob Burtschi. All, like Kuhle, were overlooked by virtually every Division I coach in America.

This was a vicious winter for Air Force's current basketball team and beyond vicious winter for Colorado College's hockey team. Dave Pilipovich of Air Force and Mike Haviland of CC face the task of rebuilding programs that have fallen, and fallen hard.

Both coaches should take a close look at the 2003-2004 Falcons.

The 2003-04 Falcons lacked height. No starter stood taller than 6-6. The team lacked brawn. Most of the starters were slender and physically unimposing. The team rebounded poorly.

But Scott had sensed a vital power in all of the big contributors to the team. They all, like Kuhle, were deep basketball thinkers. They all played with always-raging intensity, partially because they had been overlooked as recruits. The Falcons, relentless on defense, often seemed to be defending with six players.

When Air Force, filled with high school nobodies, battled against North Carolina, packed with high school elites, it offered inspiring, memorable basketball theater. The have-nots came close to toppling the haves. It was March Madness at its finest.

Expert recruiting by Haviland and his staff is required to revive the slumbering Tigers. There's no other way. In better days, CC hockey coach Scott Owens persuaded Peter Sejna, Mark Stuart, Marty Sertich, Brett Sterling and Jaden Schwartz to skate at World Arena. And that's just a sampling of the S players on the Owens list.

After winning 20 of 106 games (with 10 ties) in three seasons, Haviland must find the secret, overlooked recruits. Persuading an elite recruit to attend CC instead of, say, Denver is an exceedingly unlikely sell.

Finding these secret recruits is not easy. Scott showed a master's eye while building his Falcons, but his touch was never quite the same after he departed.

He was 38, full of promise, when he departed Air Force in the spring of 2004 to return to Princeton, his alma mater. He later coached at Denver, serving as a basketball coach at a hockey school. He won 20 games twice.

He's never returned to the NCAA Tournament. He's currently an assistant coach at Holy Cross.

In 2003-04, Air Force battled against BYU's Rafael Araujo, Utah's Andrew Bogut and New Mexico's Danny Granger, all destined to become NBA first-round picks. The Falcons conquered all three.

The 2003-04 Falcons delivered an unlikely success story, fueled by imaginative, perceptive, brilliant recruiting. It's a story that needs to be repeated by Haviland and Pilipovich.

The Kuhles and the Hoods and the Kellers and the Burtschis of 2017 are out there, waiting to be discovered.

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