The Air Force basketball team figures to be improved. Its schedule most certainly will be.
The Falcons released the 2018-19 slate Monday, and if past results are any indication the nonconference portion will be far more challenging than this past season.
Last year’s nonconference schedule included just one team ranked in the RPI’s top 100. This one has three. Last year’s had two top-150 teams. This one has five. Last year had two teams ranked outside the top 300. This one has none.
The schedule is highlighted by a Dec. 22 trip to national runner-up Michigan, a three-game swing to the Bahamas in November that will include matchups against South Dakota and UMBC – the first No. 16 to win an NCAA Tournament game this past season with an upset of No. 1 Virginia.
Army (Dec. 8), Colorado (Nov. 24) and Denver (Dec. 5) will visit Clune Arena.
The Falcons will also play just one game against a non-Division I team as it will host NAIA Johnson & Wales in the Nov. 6 opener. Last year it played two.
The average RPI rank of Air Force’s 11 Division I nonconference opponents last year was 218. In 2018-19 it will be 169.
Now, there’s a caveat to those numbers. The rankings reflect the final regular-season tally from last year. The Falcons made last year’s schedule without knowing exactly how teams would stack up, and they make this year’s again without the knowledge of how teams will fare.
South Dakota, for example, lost its coach and leading scorer. UMBC loses star Jairus Lyles, who scored 28 in that historic tournament victory. Michigan loses a first-round draft pick in Moe Wagner. This is college basketball, things change.
But by and large, Air Force has clearly picked higher-caliber opponents for what should be a higher-caliber Falcons squad.
Led by forward Lavelle Scottie and center Ryan Swan – Air Force’s top two scorers in Mountain West play at 12.8 and 11.9 ppg – this will be a junior-dominated roster that includes more height than any Falcons roster in recent memory. If Air Force opens with a lineup of Sid Tomes (6-foot-4), Caleb Morris (6-4), Keaton Van Soelen (6-7), Scottie (6-6) and Swan (6-7), it would represent an increase of 1.5 inches per man over the starting five in last season’s opener. For a team routinely outsized, that bump in height will be a welcome change.
But there are a few more things to remember. First, last year’s schedule was relatively easy – ranking 177th nationally – but it gave Air Force all it could handle as it went 4-6 against Division I teams in the nonconference and lost five of those by double figures.
Army and UC Riverside, who represent the two worst teams on Air Force’s 2018-19 nonconference schedule by RPI, hammered the Falcons by 25 and 19 points, respectively, last year. So improvement isn’t just hoped for, it’s absolutely required or the season will crater before Mountain West play opens in late December.
The Falcons have been here before. Two years ago coach Dave Pilipovich’s team was coming off a promising close to the season led by a deep, emerging sophomore class that included Trevor Lyons, C.J. Siples, Frank Toohey and Jacob Van. But the group, while having its moments over the next two seasons, never developed into a unit that could regularly compete in the Mountain West.
This current group will find out in a hurry if it is ready to push ahead in its development, because it has a schedule designed to push back.
Note: Senior Dane Norman and junior Jonathan DeWane, a pair of reserves, have opted not to return to the team but will remain at the academy as cadets.
AIR FORCE NONCONFERENCE OPPONENTS
(with ESPN’s final RPI rank 2017-18 in parenthesis)
South Dakota (81)
Missouri State (132)
At Pacific (184)
At Texas State (199)
High Point (260)
UC Riverside (295)
AIR FORCE 2018-19 SCHEDULE
Nov. 6: Johnson & Wales
Nov. 9: at Texas State
Nov. 16: vs. UMBC
Nov. 17-19: vs. High Point and/or South Dakota
Nov. 24: Colorado
Nov. 28: Missouri State
Dec. 1: at Pacific
Dec. 5: Denver
Dec. 8: Army
Dec. 22: at Michigan
Dec. 28: UC Riverside
Jan. 2: New Mexico
Jan. 5: at Utah State
Jan. 9: at Colorado State
Jan. 12: San Diego State
Jan. 16: UNLV
Jan. 19: at Nevada
Jan. 23: Boise State
Jan. 26: at San Jose State
Jan. 30: at San Diego State
Feb. 2: Colorado State
Feb. 6: Wyoming
Feb. 13: at UNLV
Feb. 16: Utah State
Feb. 20: at Fresno State
Feb. 23: San Jose State
March 2: at Wyoming
March 6: Nevada
March 9: at Boise State
March 13-16: MW Tournament
- At Bimini, Bahamas; Falcons will play three games in four days
-Part of Missouri Valley/Mountain West Challenge