Ethan Taylor saw the stat sheet and knew what it meant.
His 14 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Saturday’s 76-58 victory over Army represented a serious run at a triple-double.
The 6-foot-5 freshman point guard didn’t know, however, that Air Force has never had a player achieve the feat.
“Oh, we’re going to make it happen,” said Taylor, who posted multiple triple-doubles last season at the Air Force prep school. “We’re going to make it happen.”
Through eight games, Taylor and the freshman class have made a lot happen for the Falcons, who at 7-1 are off the team’s best start since the 2006-07 season.
What isn’t clear yet is what it all means.
Computer rankings are not convinced of the Falcons’ early resume. Ratings Power Index figures from CBS Sports (No. 238), ESPN (331) and Real-Time RPI (226) have the Falcons well outside the nation’s top 200 and ranked 11th of the Mountain West’s 11 teams. CBS Sports has the Falcons 100 spots lower than their nearest conference competitor.
But for those watching this team, the computers don’t reflect the promise of this lineup and its future.
Taylor’s triple-double run didn’t come from nowhere. He is averaging 10.3 points, 6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
“He’s a stat-sheet stuffer, and those guys are winning players,” said coach Joe Scott, who previously led the Falcons from 2000-2004 — so that 2006-07 team that started 17-1 included the final class Scott coached as freshmen during his first run with the Falcons. “He puts numbers in the columns that equal Ws. It’s not the point column, it’s all the other columns. When you play that way you find yourself getting 12, too. He’s just going to grow that way. He plays so calmly, he doesn’t get rattled.”
The freshman class also included 6-foot-10 center Lucas Moerman, whose 14 blocks rank fourth in the Mountain West. Moerman matched up with multiple Army interior players who were his height but heavier on Saturday, but he emerged with seven points, six rebounds and three blocks.
“I want to get a little more size, obviously, but playing these guys I can kind of start to see the road map of where I want to go and what I need to get better at and all those things,” said Moerman, a Doherty graduate from Colorado Springs. “Definitely helpful to keep matching up and comparing with them.”
Freshman Jake Heidbreder has started all eight games and is averaging 8.3 points while shooting 53.5% from the field and 42.9% from 3-point range.
But beyond the play of the freshmen have been the way they’ve played with the rest of the team. A.J. Walker has exploded for 23.6 points per game over his past five outings. Walker scored 16 points during a 24-0 first-half run against Army on Saturday.
“When things get stagnant and the ball’s not moving as much as you’d like it to, it’s nice to have a guy that can go get one and put us back in motion and get the confidence up for the whole team,” Taylor said.
With Moerman and Nikc Jackson sharing time, Air Force is getting 9.9 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2.6 blocks per game from the center position.
Then there’s 6-foot-4 sophomore Joe Octave, who is scoring 10 points per game.
It’s these pieces meshing together — along with timely shots from Camden Vander Zwaag and the craftiness of freshman Jeffrey Mills (whose assists per minute lead the team) — that have allowed the Falcons to build a 45-13 halftime lead over Army, a 47-25 advantage at intermission vs. Denver and mount seven-game winning streak. Even the opener against South Dakota saw the Falcons claw back within two points in the closing moments after trailing by 15 points.
The computer rankings haven’t reflected this, as it has been done a schedule that, at this point, ranks near the bottom of the 358 Division I programs. That will have the opportunity to improve a little in the coming weeks, as the Falcons travel to Montana (Dec. 8), Arkansas State (Dec. 19) and Tarleton State (Dec. 21), who are all currently ranked inside the top 200 by multiple computer rankings.
But whatever the rankings say, there’s an obvious confidence building for this team after a start that has gone about as well as could be hoped, no matter who they’ve played.
“We’re playing teams all over the country and just the fact that we’re competing so well with them and continuing to get better is exciting,” Moerman said. “Hopefully we can keep this ball rolling.
“It’s kind of an excitement, like, ‘Where can we go in these next four years? What can we do?’ Hopefully we can kind of change the trajectory of Air Force basketball.”