LAS VEGAS – Next year started with 3 minutes left in this year.
It was at that point late Thursday in a blowout 76-50 loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals that Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich pulled his starters from the game and engaged them in a quick group discussion.
“We talked about where we’ve been,” Pilipovich said, “where we’re at, and now getting to that next step.”
Everything has been pointing toward 2019-20 for the Falcons for some time. It has been since Lavelle Scottie emerged as a key player during his freshman year, and then when Ryan Swan joined him as a force on the interior midway through their sophomore year.
Those two — the foundation of what Air Force hopes can be a transformative season next year — will next take the court as seniors. The rest of the team, with the exception of senior Pervis Louder, also figures to be back for a squad that closed the season by going 9-8 against Mountain West competition, a sustained level the program has seen just once in the past 12 years.
The Falcons jumped from 10th place in the Mountain West last season to sixth this year. They beat teams that finished third, fourth and fifth in the regular season. They won three road games. They hung with ranked teams like Michigan and Nevada until various points in the second half.
But now that next year is here, the challenge will be continuing that upward trajectory that, while enticing, still produced a less-than-shiny 14-18 overall record.
The 5-7 nonconference record won’t fly next year, even though there’s talk of bolstering the schedule with road trips to face Big 12 and Pac-12 teams (the Pac-12 trip would replace Colorado on the schedule, as that contract has expired). There was also inconsistency throughout the year, including 32- and 23-point losses to Colorado State. The Falcons blew a 17-point home lead to Army. There was a 28-point road loss to Boise State in the regular-season finale, and Thursday’s drubbing at the hands of Fresno State when this group was handcuffed by pressure, turned the ball over 18 times and couldn’t manufacture stops to halt runs of 23-1 and 21-2.
“You’ve got to fail to succeed,” Scottie said after the season-closing loss that saw the Falcons collapse after jumping to a 13-6 lead. “This is definitely one of those of the times we failed. And we’re going to take the positives out of it, grow and become better basketball players, come back next year with a passion.
“We’ve got everybody returning besides one player, and that’s a lot of hope for us right there.”
Offseasons for service academies are less conducive to growth than at other schools. Instead of playing in traveling exhibitions, the Falcons will spend their summer taking classes, seeing the sophomores go through survival training, have the juniors leave for what is essentially a three-week Air Force internship and gain a freshman class straight out of basic training.
And the rest of the league won’t be standing still.
“San Diego State has two guards who are sitting out who are really good,” Pilipovich said. “Nevada probably just added a transfer today. I mean, everyone’s getting better.”
What Air Force will return is substantial. Scottie was a third-team all-Mountain West pick after averaging 18 points in conference play. Swan, an honorable mention Mountain West selection, had five double-doubles in league play and 8.5 rebounds per game in league play was the second best in program history. Point guard A.J. Walker put up the third most points for a freshman in program history and most in three decades. Caleb Morris, part of that deep senior class with Scottie and Swan, averaged 11 points over the final seven games, hitting 48 percent of his 3s in that span. Sophomore Chris Joyce established his starting spot, though he personified the team’s issues with consistency. In his best 10 games against conference competition, Joyce averaged 11.5 ppg. In the other 10 he averaged 3.4.
The team also brings back Ameka Akaya after a strong sophomore season in which he shot 58.8 percent. Sid Tomes and Keaton Van Soelen would be bounce-back candidates after seasons in which they struggled offensively but continued to show value in other areas.
Add to this any potential contributions from younger players like freshman Abe Kinrade or the incoming group from the prep school.
At the end, the Falcons found themselves bounced for the 17th time in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament. They’ve never been beyond that point.
Maybe next year?
“Now it’s time,” Pilipovich said, “to take that next step and get to another day when we get here."
Air Force is unique in that its coaches can’t discuss recruits before they are on the academy grounds reporting for basic training. But in general, coach Dave Pilipovich said he is excited about the group that will be coming in from the prep school next year. “We’ve got some length, some athleticism,” said Pilipovich, speaking from a podium Thursday night at the Mountain West Tournament along with juniors Lavelle Scottie and Caleb Morris, who were among a strong prep school group a few years ago. “We’ve got some young Lavelles and Calebs down there that are coming up, so we’re excited about that.”
Here are some members of that group.
Marcus Hill: 5-11 – G- Dallas
Nikc Jackson: 6-8 – F – Scottsdale, Ariz.
Evan Marshall: 6-6 – SF – Midlothian, Texas
Mason Taylor: 6-4 – SG – Grandview, Mo.
Camden Vander Swag: 6-3 – SG – Johnston, Iowa