Shooting woes have led to strategic woes for Air Force

March 4, 2014 Updated: March 4, 2014 at 8:13 pm
photo - Air Force forward Marek Olesinski (0) scores against San Jose State forward Chris Cunningham (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Air Force forward Marek Olesinski (0) scores against San Jose State forward Chris Cunningham (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar) 

Dave Pilipovich found Marek Olesinski sitting by himself in the locker room long after Air Force's loss to UNLV on Saturday.

What he saw in Olesinski's face was pure dejection after the junior had gone scoreless for the first time this season as the Falcons were defeated 93-67.

"I said, 'Marek, we're not worried about you as a basketball player. We're worried about you as a person,'" Pilipovich said. "'You've got to feel good about yourself. You've made great strides this year. You've gone through a little tough stretch here, but so have we. You're going to get out of it. You're going to be better because you've worked so hard. Don't worry about it. The coaching staff has so much confidence in you, the next time you're open you've got to shoot the ball.'"

Pilipovich would like nothing more than to climb inside Olesinski's head and toggle whatever switch has flipped off Olesinski's confidence, because Air Force sorely needs it.

The team sorely needs anybody who can hit 3.

Air Force's scoring has dropped from 70 points per game last season to 67 this season, with just one 60-point effort since Jan. 18. A major reason is because its 3-point percentage has dropped from 38.2 a year ago to 33.8 and the number of 3s made per game is down to 7.4 from 9.1.

With less reason to fear the 3-point shot, teams have utilized more zone defenses. UNLV hadn't employed 40 minutes of zone in a game since 1992, but the Runnin' Rebels did it against the Falcons on Saturday with crushing success.

By not guarding Air Force man-to-man, it limits the easy backdoor buckets that its motion offense provides. It also helps the opponent's preparation, as scout teams don't have to try and replicate an offense that is foreign to most.

"For UNLV, it helped to free them mentally and allowed them to focus on what they do offensively," Pilipovich said.

It's not easy for some teams to break from the norm and go to a zone, particularly when it sees the athletic mismatches it has against the Falcons. But the blueprint to defeating them is now out there and more and more opponents are going to utilize it.

Unless, that is, Air Force can shoot its way out of this. And that's where Olesinski comes into play.

In an upset victory over New Mexico last year, the Roswell, N.M., native hit five first-half 3s. He has 13 3s in Air Force's five conference victories this season, but only 17 in its 11 losses.

Pilipovich knows how sensitive his quiet big man is, but he also knows that for the scoring woes to be fixed and for Air Force to run the offense it knows best, Olesinski has to be a factor.

"We need him to be the old Marek," Pilipovich said. "He's going to get there sooner or later. It's our job to get his confidence back up."


Air Force (11-16, 5-11 Mountain West) at No. 21 New Mexico (23-5, 14-2)

7 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN3, 740 AM

Summary: Air Force is walking into a tough spot, as New Mexico will be playing on senior night and for a chance to keep the Mountain West title on the line as it enters its regular-season finale against No. 10 San Diego State.

Key stat: 31-4 - New Mexico's all-time series lead in games played at The Pit.

Player Air Force must contain: Cameron Bairstow. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds and will be playing his final home game.

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