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New vegan Jacob Van hungry for a strong finish for Air Force basketball at Mountain West Tournament

March 6, 2018 Updated: March 7, 2018 at 9:17 am
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photo - Air Force guard Jacob Van (15) drives into the lane during the first half of Saturday's game against Boise State.
Air Force guard Jacob Van (15) drives into the lane during the first half of Saturday's game against Boise State. 

Yes, Jacob Van understands his senior season hasn’t lived up to his expectations.

And no, the Air Force senior won’t place blame on his diet.

This past summer Van watched the documentary, “What the Health,” on Netflix and adopted a vegan diet, which strictly prohibits the consumption of animal products. In the process, he said he lost about 10 pounds and cut into his body fat percentage.

But did it also have something to do with his play? Once a lightning rod of a scorer, Van averaged 12.0 points over 40 games encompassing the end of his sophomore year when he was first given an expanded role through his junior campaign.

But as a senior, his output dropped to 4.7 ppg as his shooting percentage has fallen about 100 points to .345.

“I don’t think it was because of that,” Van said of any correlation between his diet and his play. “It was just kind of my confidence level and putting too much pressure on myself. Senior year I wanted to play well. That was more the mental side. Physically, I felt great and felt like I could compete at a higher level.

“Health-wise I feel great. It’s definitely working.”

Van did not jump into this diet – and lifestyle – change without doing research. He said he read several books after seeing the documentary and sought opinions of doctors before making the change in late July just before the start of his senior year at the academy.

Adjusting has taken time, but he has grown accustomed to it. Mitchell Hall, the cadet dining hall, has a full vegetarian line at lunch. Van said some of those options have cheese, which means he can’t eat them, but he generally finds a solid meal.

Around Colorado Springs, he has found a good pizza option (with soy-based cheese) at Modern Market that he enjoys every couple of weeks, and he discovered an all-vegan restaurant called the Burrowing Owl near The Broadmoor that has become a favorite.

On the road it can be tricky eating at restaurants with the team, but he often creatively pieces together salads and sides to leave satisfied.

“At first it was tough, I would be tempted to eat a hamburger or cheeseburger,” Van said. “But after a while I just changed my mindset about everything and wanted to put my health first and help out the environment. Now it’s easy. I don’t even think about it anymore.”

A report from research company GlobalData indicates that 6 percent of Americans identify as vegans, up from about 1 percent in 2014.

Van said among Air Force’s basketball team, assistant coach Evan Washington has gone vegan, while sophomore center Ryan Swan is a pesco-vegetarian, meaning he follows a vegetarian diet with the exception of fish.

“I tried to talk to them about it at first, but it’s kind of a lost cause with most of them,” Van said of his attempts to convert teammates. “Now if they talk about it I just kind of stay in my own lane, do what I do.”

But what about basketball?

Van’s career isn’t over yet, and based on Saturday’s performance there may be a lot left in the tank. He scored 23 points in the home finale, hitting as many 3s (6) as he had in nearly two months.

It served as a reminder of what Van has brought to the team, and still could at the most opportune of times. Ninth-seeded Air Force opens the Mountain West Tournament on Wednesday against No. 8 UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. It was in that exact scenario – tourney opener against the Runnin’ Rebels – that Van scored a career-high 37 points as a sophomore in a triple-overtime loss. Last year he scored 18 points as Air Force steamrolled Wyoming 83-68 for an opening victory.

For a team that finished the regular-season 4-5, a spark from Van could be the difference needed to close with a flurry.

“It would definitely make us a lot better because that’s someone else you have to worry about when he’s on the court,” senior guard Trevor Lyons said. “We already have some other guys who can score the ball, if we throw in another guy it will make it even tougher for our opponents to defend us.”

Van has never been one to go halfway. In late February of his sophomore year he had never attempted more than four shots in the game. By the end of the season he had three 20-point games.

When he slumped this year, he really slumped. He didn’t hit a 3-pointer over a seven-game stretch in nonconference play and hadn’t hit a shot of any kind over five games prior to Saturday’s outburst.

And when he adopted a new diet, he went all-in with an entirely new lifestyle.

He’s got one more shot to write a similarly extreme finish to his career.

“If I play like this I think it can really help the team out,” Van said Saturday, “and we can really make some noise out there in Vegas and go out with a bang.”

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