Anyone watching Air Force’s basketball team this season can attest to the transformation that has occurred over the past month.
On Saturday there will be a barometer no better than the eyeball test, as the Falcons face Fresno State for a second time.
“This is a different team than we’ve had before,” coach Dave Pilipovich said. “It’s a different team than we had in December.”
The Bulldogs beat Air Force 71-59 on Dec. 30. That game marked an important step in the Falcons’ progression as it was the first time in conference play that Ryan Swan joined the starting lineup.
The sophomore center scored 13 that day and has reached double figures in every game since, averaging 15 points over a five-game stretch that also included road wins at San Jose State and Colorado State and competitive home losses to Nevada and UNLV.
That may not sound like a stretch worth touting, but it hardly seemed possible Dec. 17 when the Falcons were trounced 79-54 by Army at Madison Square Garden. A month later, Jan. 17, they ended a seven-year winless drought at CSU.
“So much has changed,” said senior guard Jacob Van, who averaged 2.3 points through the first 10 games and has averaged 9.0 points over the past eight. “We’ve kind of caught a new fire and really turned things around. We knew once conference started that it was a new season. Even though we started off kind of slow, we’re ready to go now.”
The on-court reasons for the change have been easy to spot. Swan and fellow sophomore Lavelle Scottie have asserted themselves with height, strength and inside-outside scoring abilities that the team lacked. Van has rediscovered his scoring touch. Freshman Keaton Van Soelen has proven a smart fit in a supporting role, highlighted by a nine-rebound performance against CSU. And senior Trevor Lyons has provided a steady hand at point guard with 17 assists and six turnovers over the past four games.
But then again, all of these guys were playing during a horrid stretch in December that, in games against Division I opponents, included four straight losses by 12 or more points and five straight games in which the team failed to reach 60 points.
The trip to Fresno State (14-6, 4-3 Mountain West) fell under both categories and marked the final game of that stretch, and Air Force (8-10, 2-4) is eager to see how the ensuing changes translate against the Bulldogs a second time.
“Honestly, everybody was just tired of losing,” Lyons said. “We’ve got a new mindset. … Everything’s looking up for us. We’re going to try to keep riding this wave.”