Air Force can return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time this century. This is not some beyond-the-beyond, unattainable vision.
If the Falcons had defeated Fresno State and Nevada in road games, you might have been looking at Air Force in this season’s NCAA bracket. Fresno and Nevada won a combined five home conference games this season. Two of those wins came against the Falcons.
Air Force traveled to the tournament in 2004 and 2006 with teams that had better chemistry, not better talent, than this season’s team. Those Falcons played a fierce brand of defense, and those Falcons traveled with swagger into enemy arenas.
There’s reason for ambition. Next season’s Falcons will be more athletic and they’ll face the burden, and the blessing, of expectation. This season, Air Force was expected to lose. Next season, the Falcons will be expected to win.
Not saying a tournament berth is probable in 2014.
Am saying it is possible in 2015.
One — The Falcons thrive when a brawny, hostile player inhabits the lane. The Falcons thrive best when a few of those mean-spirited souls are on the roster.
Coach Dave Pilipovich needs to find rugged inside players eager to tangle with the big men of the Mountain West. Forwards DeLovell Earls and Kamryn Williams showed promise in this area. Both enjoy strategic pushing and elbowing.
They need help. Pilipovich should be looking for players to follow in the line of A.J. Kuhle, Jacob Burtschi and Keith Maren. This trio understood basketball is not a finesse game.
Not if you want to win, that is.
Two — Continue to wisely recruit Colorado.
This season, the Falcons started two players — center Taylor Broekhuis and Earls — from Colorado. (Both played high school basketball in Colorado Springs.)
Next season, Pilipovich should start three players from Colorado — Earls, Sierra’s Williams and guard Cameron Michael from Loveland.
Our state fails to rank among the nation’s finest when it comes to high school basketball, but there are overlooked gems. I remain baffled why Falcons coaches failed to aggressively pursue Brett Green of Peyton and Luke Stratman of suburban Denver.
Three — Pilipovich can tell high-scoring, egotistical (the two traits tend to go together) high school stars to look at Michael Lyons and his career at Air Force.
For most of the last dozen seasons, Air Force coaches sought to slow the game, take it back to ancient times and win with patience and defense.
Pilipovich made a courageous, correct decision this season.
He set his shooters free.
Lyons enjoyed his liberation. He torched Boise State, New Mexico and, especially, CSU.
His success will aid Pilipovich’s sales pitch to recruits.
Good times returned to Clune Arena this season. Pilipovich, as he seeks a return to the ultimate tournament in college sports, can tell recruits his players competed in front of packed houses twice (New Mexico, CSU) this season at Clune.
He might avoid mentioning several thousand of those fans were wearing the colors of invading teams.