VERMILLION, S.D. - Posted speed limits on South Dakota interstates invite motorists to zoom by at 80 mph.

On the southeastern edge of the state there are few hills, few trees and even fewer people. A person can move freely and quickly out here, without something or someone to impede their progress.

It is in this setting that Matt Mooney has made his basketball home after leaving Air Force.

"Just the freedom, being able to do what you want when you want," Mooney said. "I definitely like it out here. I like not being yelled at as much."

Mooney's decision to transfer to South Dakota is looking good. Only a sophomore by eligibility, he leads his team in scoring at 16.2 per game. He plays in a $66 million arena that opened this year. He's well-rested, too. Unlike the 6 a.m. starts to the day at the academy, Mooney sleeps until 10 on most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays before his first class begins at 11.

He trudged through two years at Air Force - one at the prep school, one as a cadet - longing for a normal college life. Now he's found it.

But what of the program he left behind?

***

Shortly after Mooney helped South Dakota to its victory Saturday, a time zone away Air Force fell 89-85 to San Jose State for its ninth loss in 13 games.

This was a season of high expectations for the Falcons. Instead, they have the lowest RPI in the Mountain West.

How different might this be with Matt Mooney, who would now be a junior, running the point and providing another scoring option?

There were others, too. Tre' Coggins bolted and now leads Cal-State Fullerton with 18.6 ppg this season. Cameron Michael left after his freshman year in 2012-13 and finished his career at Northern Colorado, averaging 13.4 points over two seasons.

Keeping players has been a recurring problem for the Falcons under coach Dave Pilipovich, and there's no clear answer as to how to prevent it.

"We just try to dig deeper into their family background, their commitment and their word and their ability to survive in our academic and military culture. That they want to do it," Pilipovich said. "We try to do our research, but you can never tell. A girlfriend can pull somebody away. A friend who says, 'Why are you doing that?' You never know what a 19-year-old, 20-year-old wants."

Mooney has no suggestions, either.

"Maybe if they did a better job of portraying what the academy is really like and everything about it," Mooney said. "But then again, I don't know if they would get many guys to go there. So it's really tough. It's tough to recruit there. It's a military school. But it's in a great league and you get to play in some awesome venues. That part I really loved."

***

Hayden Graham was leaving. He was sure of it. He called home to break the news to his parents, but they talked him out of it.

He said that scene played out at least two more times.

"Everybody comes across that path at some point," said Graham, a senior who leads Air Force in scoring and rebounding. "There's doubt. This place isn't for everybody and that's why it's such a prestigious thing to graduate from here.

"It's all about having a support system. The coaches. My teammates. My family, friends, my girlfriend ... all those people helped me stay here. It turned out to be something I would not trade for the world."

For Mooney, the forces keeping him at the academy were led by his father, who was strongly against his choice to leave. But it was also the many friends and relatives who had expressed their pride in him for attending the academy. He didn't want to let them down.

Also, there was the fact that the worst of it was finished. He'd completed basic training twice, and the structure of the academy affords more and more privileges as cadets climb the ranks.

Still, he wasn't happy. He didn't like the treatment he received from upperclassmen on the hill and he didn't care for the basketball team's Princeton offense that he felt was restrictive. He asked Pilipovich if the offense would be changing and was told no. Mooney said his mother didn't like what the strain was doing to him and encouraged him to leave. He finally decided to do it, but he needed a two-hour wait in the parking lot before he summoned the courage to tell Pilipovich.

He walked in, shut the door, and started to cry.

"He didn't say anything. I knew," Pilipovich said. "Matt loved basketball. Maybe didn't love being a cadet, but really loved basketball. You can't hold that against him. This place wasn't for him. Probably wouldn't have been a good option with that attitude."

The academy allows cadets to leave without penalty until they begin classes their junior year. That available exit can be tempting during hard times, particularly when something better - or at least easier - is waiting on the other side.

This extends well beyond basketball. Each year the academy brings in roughly 1,200 freshmen. By graduation classes generally shrink to 800-850.

For basketball players who have early success at the academy, the grass they see on that other side can look even greener.

***

To anyone watching closely two years ago, Mooney's hot start at South Dakota should not come as a surprise.

During a six-game stretch as a freshman he averaged 11.3 points and shot 57 percent from the 3-point line as he carried the team to a 4-2 record, with wins over New Mexico, UNLV and Wyoming.

His overall numbers weren't so glossy, as he posted averages of 6.9 points and 1.9 rebound. He'll probably best be remembered for punching a Colorado State player in defense of a teammate and for accusing the academy of bullying in an interview with an Illinois paper. He said he regrets his word choice, but he felt singled out by upperclassmen he believed didn't like him because of a perception that he prioritized basketball over the military.

But other teams were clearly watching closely, because Mooney jumped from little interest out of high school - Air Force and UMass Lowell were his only Division I choices - to fielding multiple offers from mid-majors.

"We recruited like crazy to get that guy," South Dakota coach Craig Smith said.

Mooney feared there would be backlash from those at Air Force who felt he used them to better his stock, and he was right. He said there was immediate friction with Pilipovich.

"I know Coach P felt like I took advantage of him, like I planned on leaving the whole time. So he played me thinking I was staying and that allowed me to get some interest from other schools," Mooney said. "But I never intended on leaving."

Pilipovich said the topic of playing young players early is complicated.

"It's hard. If they have early success sometimes that's not a good thing because they feel they can go play at another Division I institution without the military concept," Pilipovich said. "If they don't have some success then we're a little disappointed because we were hoping they'd be a little better as a freshman. It's kind of a Catch-22 thing."

Every team loses players to transfer, to bad grades or early to the NBA draft. The difference with Air Force is it can't fill those voids with transfers and is instead forced to find replacements from within. So far, it has always found a way to put a finger in the dam. After Michael left, Coggins had a breakout year. After Coggins left, it was Mooney and fellow freshman Trevor Lyons who emerged. Without Mooney, Jacob Van came out of nowhere last year to average 19.4 points over the final seven games.

"It's like somebody's hiding behind the woodworks and they pop out and they're suddenly a great player," Graham said.

***

With a population of just 10,571 and tucked away in relative isolation, Vermillion, S.D., is nowhere near the size of Mooney's hometown of Chicago or Colorado Springs, where he spent two years.

It has grown on him, though.

"(It has) a lot of, like, country people, but a lot of normal people, too," Mooney said. "When I was coming here I was like, 'What are these people going to be like out in the middle-of-nowhere South Dakota?' But everybody's normal people. It's a cool town. It's a family atmosphere here."

Normalcy was what Matt Mooney sought. A place that would embrace him. He didn't find that at Air Force. He has it now.

"I don't think I would change anything because God has a specific plan for everybody," Mooney said. "This was my plan."

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