Updated: March 11, 2014 at 11:30 am
Good times should be just around the bend for Air Force's men's basketball team, but there's one massive question hanging over the program.
Is talented sophomore point guard Tre' Coggins returning to the Falcons next season? He's scored 20 or more points eight times this season. He's the rare Air Force athlete who could play for most teams in the country.
But he's often seemed less than totally interested in competing for his current team. He endured a three-game suspension from a coaching staff disappointed by his lack of commitment to the Falcons and his military duties.
Coggins could depart the academy after the spring semester with no complications, and his possible exit has been a prime worry for coach Dave Pilipovich.
Coggins recently cleared the air.
Well, kind of.
"As of right now, I have every intention of coming back," Coggins said. "Right now, my decision would be to stay. . Right now, this is where I belong, I feel like."
Let me translate Coggins' words. Yes, he sounds as if he's giving himself an out with his repeated use of "right now," but this is how he talks. Coggins is not the type to offer a clear guarantee of his future. He doesn't talk in exclamation mark sentences.
If he returns, and I believe he's strongly leaning in that direction, Air Force could rise to a winning record - say, 10-8 - in Mountain West play and contend for a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. Five starters and the nine leading scorers return from a team that finished 6-12 in the MWC. Coggins and Air Force play Fresno State on Wednesday at Las Vegas in the opening round of the MWC Tournament.
Coggins could be special. He's blessed with a blazingly quick first step. He can drop shots from 22 feet. When he's in the mood, he plays a brand of ferocious defense that borders on stalking. Despite his struggles this season, he was named third-team all-MWC on Monday.
When talking about pure talent, Coggins ranks near the top of Air Force players of the 21st century alongside Tim Keller, Dan Nwaelele and Michael Lyons, who led the Falcons to an 8-8 MWC record in 2012-2013.
Air Force forward Kamryn Williams is a Lyons expert. He covered the Falcons star in practice, and he watched last season when Lyons torched CSU for 45 points.
"I wouldn't compare him to Lyons because he's Tre'," Williams said. "But I honestly think Tre' could be better than Mike Lyons. Tre' is such a good shooter and he has it all. Most people who come to this place have one or two things, and I believe Tre' has the whole package."
These are big words. Lyons is one of the best Air Force athletes, but I support Williams' view, with one crucial asterisk.
I'm not sure about how badly Coggins wants to be one of the MWC's best players. He's lacked a star's work ethic in practice and the required give-every-last-drop-of-effort in games.
Pilipovich clearly wants Coggins to return next season, but he wants a totally committed version of Coggins. Pilipovich asks his players to place, in his words, "both feet in." The coach demands immersion into AFA's basketball program, academics and the military. Pilipovich still waits for Coggins to fully immerse himself.
"He's talented," Pilipovich said. "You know he's talented, but he has to work at getting in better condition and pushing himself in every game and practice. He's got another gear he can get to, another level."
Coggins offered several views of that level this season. He scored a combined 56 points in back-to-back January games against San Diego State and San Jose, sinking 20 of 35 shots and looking ready for a breakout sophomore season, but he hasn't reached those heights since.
He could next season. Coggins faces a choice as he heads into his break from basketball. He could return to Air Force, firmly placing both feet into his commitment, and reign as the Falcons' most important player his final two seasons.
Or he could depart and be just another player somewhere else.
Potential is a blessing, and a burden. When Coggins is focused, when he's sizzling defenders and competing at full fire, he's a powerful force on the court.
"I would say there's more," Coggins said, agreeing with Pilipovich about the higher gear. "I need to learn how to tap into it, but there's definitely more."
Yes, there is.