LAS VEGAS – The window is now open for Air Force.
There’s no denying that this sophomore group is different than anything the Falcons have had since Michael Lyons and the deep Class of 2013 came through and went .500 in conference play and played in a postseason tournament.
That has to be the expectation now for this program. And it’s no coincidence that coach Dave Pilipovich has two years left on his contract.
Bring it, this group says.
“I feel like we overcame some steppingstones in our path,” sophomore Lavelle Scottie said after scoring 23 points in a Mountain West Tournament overtime loss to UNLV on Wednesday that ended the season. “I feel like as the sophomore class, the next two years we’re going to do a lot of damage in the Mountain West.”
One by one, those sophomores (along with freshman Keaton Van Soelen) jumped over those ahead of them. Scottie was there in the opener and throughout the season. Ryan Swan entered the lineup Dec. 30 and never relinquished his spot. Van Soelen and Sid Tomes were regular starters over extended stretches in January and February. Caleb Morris started just once, but logged double-digit minutes in each of the last seven games, scoring a career-high 17 in the loss to UNLV.
In conference play, 64 percent of Air Force’s points came from non-seniors.
With that group assembled, the Falcons went 6-8 down the stretch in Mountain West play and were eliminated by the Runnin’ Rebels on their home floor only after an extra 5 minutes.
That’s not to say seniors didn’t play major roles, and Trevor Lyons was the unquestioned MVP of the team. But the talent in that younger group stood out as different. Because of the added height and abilities, that group allowed Air Force to effectively play man-to-man defense and bring other wrinkles that will allow them to escape from some of the quirkiness often required by Falcons teams because of their athletic limitations.
Also, this group knows how to play together, with Morris, Scottie, Swan and Tomes entering together through the prep school.
“We’re really tight,” Morris said. “Hopefully we bring that closeness, togetherness and just rise up with it.”
But, there’s a catch. The group has to remain in school. It has to stay healthy. And it has to continue to improve. None of those can be seen as givens for a program that has seen talented players leave, has seen standouts like Kamryn Williams lost to serious injuries and has seen classes show hints at promise only to peak early. Remember, this outgoing senior class once looked equally promising as sophomores with Lyons, C.J. Siples, Jacob Van and Frank Toohey rising to dominant roles on the team. The difference between that class and this next wave is across-the-board height and size that should insulate it better against slumps.
“You’ve got to be lucky a little bit,” Pilipovich said. “Continue the right thing as cadets. You never know, there can always be a hiccup along the way. They have a strong bond. They love the game. They love the work and they challenge each other. And with the freshmen and the guys coming in, I think it’s good for us to keep moving forward and we have some good leadership and talent in that group. So, it’s fun and exciting and we’re looking forward to it.”
Potential Air Force 2018-19 starting lineup
G Sid Tomes, 6-4, junior … Shot 37.5 percent from 3-point range in Mountain West play, leading all Falcons with at least 50 attempts. Has 16 career starts.
G Caleb Morris, 6-4, junior … Averaged 11.5 points and 5.4 rebounds over final six games, shooting 55 pct. from the field and 48 pct. from 3 in that span
F Lavelle Scottie, 6-6, junior … Led the team in scoring (12.2 ppg) as a junior, finishing second in blocked shots and third in rebounds. Scored 15+ 11 times.
F Keaton Van Soelen, 6-7, sophomore … Started 11 games as a freshman; blocked eight shots over a five-game span in Mountain West action
C Ryan Swan, 6-6, senior … Reached double figures in his first eight starts this year; led team in rebounds blocks and shooting pct. In conference play.
Is relief on the way?
Air Force hasn't posted a conference season above .500 since its 26-9 (10-6) season in 2006-07 that capped an unprecedented four-year run of success for the program. The current group of sophomores has been compared to the Class of 2013, which was the last to hit the .500 mark.
Year Overall (MW)
2017-18 12-19 (6-12)
2016-17 12-21 (4-14)
2015-16 14-18 (5-13)
2014-15 14-17 (6-12)
2013-14 12-18 (6-12)
2012-13 18-14 (8-8)
2011-12 13-16 (3-11)
2010-11 16-16 (6-10)
2009-10 10-21 (1-15)
2008-09 10-21 (0-15)
2007-08 16-14 (8-8)