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Trip to Colorado will provide a gauge for Air Force basketball

November 24, 2015 Updated: November 24, 2015 at 7:48 pm

It seems that every year, a game against Colorado during the week of Thanksgiving provides the Air Force basketball team with a sort of crystal ball into the rest of the season.

At least that's how it's been in four years under coach Dave Pilipovich.

Three years ago, Air Force hung tight on the road until the final minutes in what turned into a 15-point loss against a Buffaloes team that was ranked No. 23. The Falcons then turned in their best season over the past eight years, though it turned sour at the very end with seven losses in the last 10 games.

The next year, Air Force got blown out 81-47 in Clune Arena. The season, for the most part, followed that script and the Falcons went 12-18.

Last year, Air Force lost by 15 but closed strong, outscoring the Buffaloes 38-31 in the second half. Sure enough, the season followed suit as Air Force finished below .500 but went 6-6 down the stretch in Mountain West games.

So, what will Wednesday's game tell the Falcons?

"I don't want to make any outlandish statements talking about how we're going to go in and play or anything like that. I mean, time will tell," said Hayden Graham, who is averaging 16 points and 9.5 rebounds for Air Force (4-1). "But this is a different team. I think people can see that. We believe we can win every game we go into.

"We've never really brought anything against Colorado."

The big part of Colorado's domination in the series - it has won five straight and leads the series 21-3 - has been its size. Colorado Springs products Josh Scott (15.5 points, 9.3 rebounds) and Wesley Gordon (6.0, 5.3) provide difficult matchups in the paint.

With 6-foot-11 Zach Moer and 6-8 Joe Tuss, along with reserves Kyle Broekhuis (6-7) and Brendan Leonard (6-8), the Falcons at least have bodies to compare with Scott and Gordon, but of course size isn't everything.

"This is Josh's, what, 10th year now playing up there. It seems like it," Pilipovich said of Scott, the Lewis-Palmer graduate who has averaged 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds against the academy - the alma mater of his mother and father. "He's had a great career and he's picked up where he left off when he was healthy last year."

Air Force has had success this season playing primarily a man-to-man defense. It will be interesting to see if Colorado's size forces it instead to bunch into a zone to try to maintain order on the inside.

On offense, Air Force has generally helped itself to a few easy layups courtesy of backdoor cuts from the Princeton offense. This year, teams are playing a zone against the Falcons and forcing them out of that offense. By shooting just 20 percent (13 of 65) from 3-point range, the team has done nothing to convince teams to come out of that zone.

"Honestly you just shoot yourself out of it," sophomore forward Ryan Manning said of the team's shooting slump. "You take the open shots that you're supposed to take and eventually they're going to start falling. You've just got to make sure that you remember your mechanics and eventually it will start falling. We're not worried about the missed 3s at all, those are going to come. We're just trying to play hard."

Air Force has seen a bit of everything in four games, losing a 15-point lead in a loss and losing a 14-point lead in a game it came back to won. It overcame a large deficit in a victory and pulled away after a slow start for a lopsided win.

"We have (seen a lot), but we haven't seen Colorado at Colorado," Pilipovich said. "We haven't played a Pac-12 team. We haven't seen that type of experience, that type of size away from home and we need to see that now. We'll get a good gauge of where we're at."

And, if history repeats itself, the Falcons might also learn where they're going.

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