Led by Michael Lyons, Air Force’s basketball team performed great feats at Clune Arena this season.
The question is:
Can Lyons, who was named to the Mountain West's first team, and the Falcons carry a touch of this home magic on the road? The answer so far this season has been an emphatic, embarrassing no.
A yes answer is crucial to the team’s sustained future. Air Force plays UNLV at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.
“We finished 13-2 at home,” coach Dave Pilipovich shouted seconds before he ran off the court Saturday following the Falcons' 89-88 win over No. 12 New Mexico.
Pilipovich is justly proud of his team’s home record, which includes victories over San Diego State, UNLV and Boise State.
But this home mastery serves as an indictment to Pilipovich and the Falcons. Air Force was a top-25 team when backed by the roar of home fans.
They were among the weakest teams in the country when playing away from Clune. Air Force was 7-1 in Mountain West home games. The Falcons were 1-7 in MW road games.
The road numbers are depressing. Air Force scored more than 70 points in seven home conference games. The Falcons scored more than 70 points only once in road conference games, and that was in an overtime loss to UNLV.
At home, the Falcons attack the rim in a bold, up-tempo style that entertains fans. This approach reveals a senior class that finally matured after residing for three seasons in college basketball’s basement.
But these seniors failed to travel with this hard-won maturity and happiness into hostile arenas. On the road, Michael Lyons, Todd Fletcher, Mike Fitzgerald and Taylor Broekhuis still resemble the frightened, limited players they were as freshman, sophomores and juniors.
Away from Clune, this quartet never quite grew up. It’s time – it’s past time – for these seniors to lead in destinations where the crowd is jeering instead of cheering.
Lyons offers the clearest example of this team’s split personality. At home, Lyons soared as an All-American, and this is not an exaggerated description.
He averaged 23.75 points while shooting 55.5 percent from the field in MWC games. He scored 37 against Boise State, 45 against CSU and 30 in his farewell against New Mexico.
On the road in the MW, he was a mere shadow of himself. He averaged 11.4 points, shot 37 percent and never scored 20 points. He was the lead hero at home, where the Falcons averaged 77.3 points, and the prime villain on the road, where the Falcons averaged a mere 57.2.
For years, for better or worse, the Falcons have been a team that did not rely on a star. This year is different. Lyons carried this team to wins at home, lifting his teammates as he chased away the blues of three painful seasons.
During the finest 40 minutes of his career, he nearly conquered CSU all by himself, inspiring Rams coach Larry Eustachy to announce Lyons would someday play in the NBA.
He must carry this swashbuckling home style approach to Vegas. He must inspire his teammates to compete with bravery instead of timidity.
Otherwise, the Falcons have no chance.