The Air Force men’s basketball team gathered in coach Dave Pilipovich’s basement to watch the academy’s football team play at Navy in early October.
Couches were moved around. Food was consumed. It was a party.
When Pilipovich’s wife, Kelly, descended the stairs afterward to survey the damage, she found the players had left just one thing behind — a thank you note.
“You wouldn’t know anybody had been there,” Kelly Pilipovich said. “They had put everything back. There wasn’t a crumb on the floor.
“It’s just such a nice group.”
For this collection of players — led by five seniors — who might possess the talent for the kind of run the program hasn’t seen in more than a decade, such a compliment strikes straight at what they value most.
“We push each other to do the right thing off the court maybe even more than off the court,” senior guard Sid Tomes said.
Ryan Swan said the only moment he thought about leaving Air Force came during his freshman year.
He was removed from the team to focus on academics, and for a time, he wanted to eject.
“I definitely didn’t want to be here,” he said. “I was kicked off the team and really just shooting myself in the foot and blaming everyone else for me being shot in the foot.”
He figured it out, received a few minutes on the floor late in his freshman year and flourished as a sophomore. As a junior he was an honorable mention all-Mountain West selection and his 8.5 rebounds per game were the most for Air Force since 1999-2000.
Lavelle Scottie, the program’s first all-Mountain West first-team preseason selection since Jacob Burschi in 2006, stuck around because he always felt he had no alternative.
The academy represented his escape from an impoverished upbringing in Fort Worth, Texas.
Of course, you have to look past just Scottie and Swan to understand the factors that have the Falcons excited about this year.
There is the play of A.J. Walker. The coaching staff decided after an 0-3 start to conference play last season that they were going to commit to the freshman as their point guard — sink or swim. Walker scored 19 points the next game and averaged 10.4 for the rest of the season as the team finished 9-8.
There’s Chris Joyce, another returning starter — the Falcons return all five starters and 88.3 percent of their scoring from last year. Joyce hit 35 percent of his 3-point shots as a sophomore, including the game-winner at San Jose State.
There’s Caleb Morris, the team’s top 3-point shooter last year.
There’s Keaton Van Soelen, a 6-foot-7 junior who has played regular minutes since early in his freshman year and has built a reputation for his steady defensive play and demeanor.
But the most pronounced difference between this and most of the other teams under Pilipovich is that every key piece has stuck around.
So many others — Tre’ Coggins, Cam Michael, Matt Mooney, Darrius Parker the most notable examples — left the academy, leaving Pilipovich with holes that could only be filled slowly with new high school recruits. It’s not unusual for a program to lose transfers in college basketball. National writer Jeff Goodman keeps a tally of transfers that climbed past 800 this year. But other programs have avenues to patch the leaks. Air Force has to rebuild the whole dam.
Scottie and Swan came to the prep school with Tomes and Morris and opted to stick together.
“They formed a bond at the prep school and said they were going to do this thing,” Pilipovich said.
“Which is neat and a credit to them.”
LeSean Brown joined the group of seniors the following year as a direct-enter recruit from high school in San Antonio.
“They’re really close and do things with each other, they check on each other, they tease each other,” Pilipovich said. “They’re really close. This group will be together 20 years from now. Not all our guys do that. But they will.”
Prior to Air Force’s exhibition last week against Colorado Christian, former Falcon A.J. Kuhle addressed the team in the locker room.
Kuhle was a guard on Air Force’s 2003-04 squad that remains the only conference championship team in program history.
He told the team about how close that team had grown over three consecutive seasons of finishing in last place and how his classmates wanted to do something to change the program before they left.
It was a message the team could understand.
“I’m with some of my best friends,” Swan said. “And they’re just asking us to do something I know we can do.”
Scottie, who serves as the emotional barometer of the team, has taken it upon himself to set a tone of urgency in practice, knowing there’s going to be a grace period to feel out the early part of the season if this team is to play beyond the Mountain West Tournament — which is the internal goal and expectation.
“I want to come out with some wins, have the season that we want to have and look back as I’m throwing my hat in the air,” Scottie said. “Quick and sweet. That’s how I want it.”
The season begins Thursday with a visit from Idaho State at 7 p.m. at Clune Arena.
Pilipovich said it’s not urgency he feels, or nervousness to capitalize on the window that is open. Instead, it’s an excitement to see what this group can accomplish.
“It’s their time,” he said.
And much like their coach’s basement, these players want to leave the program better than they found it.
Air Force's Lavelle Scottie averaged 15.3 points and 5.6 rebounds last season, catapulting him to a spot on the preseason all-Mountain West first team in a first for the program since Jacob Burtschi in 2005.
Air Force finished sixth in the Mountain West in 2018-19 and brings back all of its starters and the majority of the roster, yet the Falcons were picked eighth in the league this year. Read reactions from league coaches to the poll.
As a 6-foot-6 lefty with a sweet shooting stroke, Evan Marshall was a prized recruit for Air Force as he attended the prep school last year. But while there, his eyes were opened to the possibilities available at the academy away from the court. Now, he's giving up basketball to focus on those pursuits.