“Rivalry” week should be extremely telling for Air Force basketball.
Denver visits on Wednesday, followed by Army on Saturday. It’s a pair of familiar opponents facing a Falcons team now fully stocked with the parts it hoped to build around this season.
“Kind of like rivalry week for us here in the nonconference play,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said.
“It’s important for our growth. To get victories would be great as well, but continue to build.”
Pilipovich has put the emphasis on building throughout the nonconference, particularly when injuries and illnesses slowed the start to the year for several players, including juniors Caleb Morris, Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan, as well as sophomore Keaton Van Soelen. In addition, Pilipovich said the ankle injuries the team has dealt with this season are as numerous as the past few seasons combined.
The results have been a fluctuating lineup and inconsistent play. Only last week, when everyone but junior LaSean Brown was available, did Pilipovich feel he was fielding the team he had envisioned. The result was an 88-69 home win over Missouri State and an 82-69 loss at Pacific.
In those games the Falcons shot 56 percent from the field and 47 percent from 3-point range.
“Feeling really good about where we’re at, but we should have been here a few weeks earlier,” Pilipovich said. “But anyway, it is what it is.”
In Denver (2-6), the Falcons will face a team that has lost six of seven games. Air Force won last year in Denver after overcoming a 27-5 deficit to snap a 22-game road losing streak.
In Army (4-5), the Falcons will face a service academy rival that has won four straight meetings. The Black Knights hammered Air Force 79-54 last December in Madison Square Garden.
Pilipovich wouldn’t speculate on the importance of this week, which will be followed by 14 days off and then a game at No. 2 Michigan. One more non-conference game – against UC Rivderside – will follow, then the Mountain West slate begins.
Two wins this week would bring the Falcons to .500. It would give them a confidence-building, three-game winning streak. For a two-game stretch in December against non-conference teams, it’s hard to imagine larger stakes when this is coupled with the familiarity and bragging rights involved with these games.
But Pilipovich wants to keep the focus on growth. He has asked that this team not be evaluated until January.
Air Force has a veteran roster, but is still relatively young by most standards. A freshman, three sophomores and a junior started the last game, though this week could see a return to a starting five of four juniors and a senior.
Growth is, of course, the goal. But at some point, the Falcons will need to display something tangible from that building process – and this would be the time to do it.