Dave Pilipovich expects a long New Year's Eve night not because of celebrations but because of sleep-robbing stress.
Air Force's men's basketball coach has had 11 games to whip an inexperienced team into one ready to take on the Mountain West, beginning with Wednesday's 6:05 p.m. game against Utah State at Clune Arena. The logistics and strategies have been taught, but there's one thing that Pilipovich isn't so sure has taken hold with this group, and it's what he knows will keep him up on the last night of the year.
"We have to be more competitive," said the coach, who is entering his second full conference season at the helm. "We have to be the first one to hit, not get hit and react."
This season, so far, has largely been one of reacting for the Falcons. They had to react first to the losses of five key seniors, then to the loss of two players who left the team, and then to the return of one of those when Justin Hammonds re-upped after two games.
They then had to scramble to overcome injuries to junior captains DeLovell Earls and Kamryn Williams, who were both knocked out for the majority of the nonconference schedule.
The Falcons have experimented with seven starting lineups, constantly reacting to which player has the hot hand or provides the right matchup.
"I guess every coach would say they want more time, but you know what, there is no more time," Pilipovich said. "We're excited to go play.
"We're getting better. We had a good week of practice. But where does that put us? We don't know."
Pilipovich hopes the full return of Earls - a returning starter who has played just 3 minutes as he has recovered from a broken left tibia - will fix part of what stresses him so much.
"When he's on the floor we're a better team," Pilipovich said. "He has a lot of basketball savvy, and we don't have a lot of that. He knows how to play."
Rather than have his team look at the Mountain West schedule in its 18-game entirety, Pilipovich and his staff have broken the season down into what he's calling "three-game seasons."
The first season includes the home game against the Aggies (10-2) and trips to UNLV and Fresno State.
No matter how he tries to spin it, the season changes now. Sophomore point guard Tre' Coggins, the No. 8 scorer in the Mountain West at 16.6 points per game, said the team is excited about the next phase.
"I'm ready to be on the Mountain West stage," Coggins said.
Utah State will be without suspended 6-foot-10 center Jarred Shaw (16.1 ppg). Shaw was charged Friday with distribution of a controlled substance, a second-degree felony. He also faces misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.