As Air Force basketball braces for what figures to be some difficult personnel decisions, coach Dave Pilipovich is operating under one guiding principle.
"We are better when all five guys on the floor can make shots, make the 3," Pilipovich said.
The players they have to choose from provide the Falcons several options to create a lineup stacked with shooters. For example, Marek Olesinski has played a lot at both center and a forward. The junior is a lethal shooter, whose 42.9 percent career mark from long distance could match up favorably with any big man in the nation. When he slides to the center spot, the Falcons may sacrifice a bit on the defensive end but they can then load an offense with shooters.
This would leave superior defenders like Darrius Parker, Ethan Michael or Chase Kammerer on the bench. Of course, with the Falcons' zone defense, a less-than-stellar defender can be masked on the inside.
It's quandaries like this that have already prompted Air Force to throw out six different starting lineup combinations through the first nine games.
Such decisions are going to hit Pilipovich with even greater frequency now that the Falcons are set to add Kamryn Williams and, in the next few weeks, DeLovell Earls into the mix. A few weeks ago the two captains and freshman Hayden Graham were all out with leg injuries and Justin Hammonds had not yet rejoined the team, leaving Air Force scrambling to find bodies to throw out there. With so many more capable players now at their disposal and with the level of competition about to skyrocket with the opening of Mountain West play on Jan. 1, it is inevitable that some players who have seen regular action will see those minutes dwindle.
Pilipovich said he expects to settle in on a rotation soon.
"Practices are getting a lot more competitive," Olesinski said. "Everybody is fighting for positions. It's helping us get better; everybody's pushing each other."
Pilipovich was a longtime assistant before being promoted with the Falcons nearly two years ago and took over a ready-made lineup, chock full of upperclassmen. So while there were decisions to be made regarding substitutions, it wasn't as complicated as this season figures to be. Air Force may have entirely different looks within games based on what's working, who's in foul trouble and who has the hot hand.
So not only should Air Force's young lineup expect to go through some growing pains, but Pilipovich might find himself maturing in a role in which he is not particularly experienced.
"Sometimes it's just a gut feel," Pilipovich said. "Against South Dakota with Hayden Graham, that was just a gut feel. I knew he had had some good practices and I just thought, 'Why not?'"
Graham responded with 10 second-half points in the 94-86 Falcons' victory.
That South Dakota team then played Wyoming into overtime before falling by two points and then lost at Kansas State by one. So it was as quality a victory as the Falcons have posted, and it came with Graham's unexpected contribution.
That will likely become the norm.
"It's going to be excited," said junior Max Yon, who may be asked to play point guard, shooting guard and wing in the coming weeks. "Those other guys are going to keep bringing it in practice if they're not seeing as much time on the court. I think everyone feels and knows their role, and especially once everybody is back, they're going to accept it."