Air Force's basketball players surprised everyone last season - including themselves - by finishing 8-8 in Mountain West Cplay.

Fans returned to Clune Arena to see a revived team that claimed home wins over nationally ranked San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV.

Part of the reason for this revival was a rugged nonconference schedule. Last season, the Falcons traveled to Richmond and Florida for games that exposed their weaknesses.

"It paid off for us," coach Dave Pilipovich said of the early tests.

This season, the Falcons will enter the conference schedule after a breezy nonconference road schedule. The team will have little idea how good - or bad - it is.

Air Force's 2013-2014 schedule was released Friday. It's not completely devoid of rigorous nonconference games. The Falcons will play host to Richmond and Colorado. The Buffs feature local stars Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon.

But the brutal road preparation of last season is nowhere to be seen. Well, except for maybe a Dec.?21 trip to California-Davis.

Is the nonconference schedule too light?

Pilipovich considered the question for a few moments.

"I think it's appropriate for the team we have returning," he answered.

He has a point. Last season, Pilipovich could rely on four senior starters and one of the deepest rosters in school history. Pilipovich didn't expect to also lose Cam Michael and Justin Hammonds, two of his top four returning players. Michael transferred to Northern Colorado and Hammonds departed the team to concentrate on academics.

Nick Welch, one of the stars of Air Force's 2004 NCAA Tournament team, has returned as an assistant coach. Pilipovich has been impressed by Welch's play in informal workouts.

"If we could play him," Pilipovich said, "we'd be all right."

He laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh.

When Pilipovich juggled with the upcoming schedule, he knew conference play would begin a week earlier this season than last season. This limited his nonconference travel options.

He also knew he would be placing an inexperienced team on the floor. Last season, his players were mature enough to learn from adversity.

He's not so sure about the personality of this season's team. He worries adversity might crush the Falcons spirit.

This worry is the prime reason for the less-strenuous schedule.

In his first full season as head coach, Pilipovich took chances. He dumped the go-slow tempo of the last dozen seasons and installed a revved-up attack. He sent his team on long trips, looking for powerful teams and hostile fans.

The strategy worked.

Pilipovich understands why he was successful last season. Part of the success was based on a mature team jammed with seniors desperately weary of losing. And part of the success was a schedule filled with tough road games.

He wants to return to a more challenging schedule, perhaps as early as next season. That's the proper plan.


Twitter: @davidramz