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Seniors or sophomores: Rotation decisions present dilemma for Air Force basketball

January 30, 2018 Updated: January 31, 2018 at 7:37 am
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photo - Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich talks to his team during a timeout in the second half against Utah State Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at Air Force Academy's Clune Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo. Utah State won 78-65. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich talks to his team during a timeout in the second half against Utah State Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at Air Force Academy's Clune Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo. Utah State won 78-65. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Dave Pilipovich tried his garage door opener three times Saturday night before he realized what had happened.

“I reached down for my phone and look up,” he said, “I’m in my neighbor’s driveway.”

The mistake is understandable, as the Air Force men's basketball coach had a lot on his mind. A few hours earlier his team had been outscored 11-5 down the stretch in a loss to Boise State, the third straight home game that had seen the Falcons miss a chance to close strong and beat a team in the upper half of the Mountain West standings.

Pilipovich obsessed late into the postgame night – the eve of his 54th birthday – over the defensive tweaks that might have made the difference.

While the coulda-woulda-shouldas from that game are no longer pertinent, Pilipovich knows he will wrangle with decisions over the final 10 regular-season games that will be just as all-consuming.

In question is how to handle his senior class over the final stretch of the season as a large group of sophomores are making a play for more minutes.

Trevor Lyons’ role is secure at point guard. The senior and four-year starter leads the team in minutes, assists, steals, 3-point percentage and is moving up all-time program list in scoring (he’s 30th with 960 points) and steals (he’s tied for fourth with 147).

Beyond Lyons, the outlook gets murkier for the seniors. Jacob Van has started six of the past seven games, but he’s gone 0 for 10 in the past two games and was lifted for sophomore Caleb Morris, who is two inches taller at 6-foot-4, for defensive reasons late against Boise State. Van’s playing time has fluctuated this season in sync with his scoring output.

Center Frank Toohey, who owns 54 career starts and a reputation as something of an inside warrior, lost his job to sophomore Ryan Swan and is seeing his backup time encroached by the taller Jonathan DeWane.

“Maybe just a difference in size helps,” Pilipovich said. “That’s something you’ve got to look at.”

Ryan Manning is no longer technically part of that senior group, as he took a medical turnback after a knee injury as a sophomore. That means he’s on pace to graduate in December, which would bring him back for at least one more semester of basketball.

But Manning has fallen victim to the most extreme result of the shift in minutes to younger players. After leading the team in scoring through nonconference, he has gone cold in league play (1-for-12 shooting) as his minutes dropped into the single digits. He then got sick, missed a game, and after playing just 3 minutes at Utah State he did not appear in the loss to Boise State.

“Ryan has given us some good moments over the years and he’s a good player,” Pilipovich said. “But from the Utah State game Caleb Morris came in and was 2 of 3 from 3 and had two good ball screen and rolls.

“You’re always looking in practice, who’s contributing and giving you some good minutes.”

The other senior is C.J. Siples, who hadn’t scored more than five points in a game for two months before exploding for 16 on 7-of-10 shooting against Boise State. It remains to be seen if the coaches view that performance as the outlier or the beginning of a resurgence for the speedy guard.

One thing seems certain, the underclassmen aren’t going to back off their challenge for time. Sophomores Lavelle Scottie and Swan along with freshman Keaton Van Soelen seem to be settling into starting roles. Morris, a sophomore, has seen his minutes jump from 3 to 7 to 13 to 15 over the past four games. Sid Tomes, also part of the deep sophomore group, has averaged 14.7 minutes in conference game. DeWane, who is probably closer to 6-9 than the 6-8 he is listed, has scored 38 points with 11 rebounds in 48 minutes over his past eight games.

Pilipovich understandably feels loyalty to the group of seniors, particularly during the final stretch of their careers, but at the same time knows it’s his job to put the best team on the floor.

Air Force under Pilipovich has smartly used a deep bench, which has allowed it to maximize the impact of altitude at home and lessen the strain on the season's grind for cadet-athletes. But as the season winds to a close, he has tended to stick with the players he trusts. In the four games last year after Feb. 1 that were decided by seven or fewer points, the top eight players in Air Force’s rotation logged 93 percent of the minutes.

That rotation is sorting itself out now, and it’s a dilemma that ought to have Pilipovich’s neighbors on guard for stray cars in the driveway.

Still, Pilipovich said the issue has been made easier by the team’s understanding.

“They’ve been great. They’ve been awesome,” he said. “Our team is really close. They want to obviously win and they want to work and push. They’re a close group and they do a lot of things together on and off the court and there’s no, ‘Well, he’s playing …’ It’s not that. It’s to get better and who’s giving minutes and positive minutes.”

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