The first recruiting pitch for Joe Scott at Air Force won’t be to high school prospects, but to the players returning for the Falcons’ basketball program.
It’s not so much that Scott – hired on Tuesday to return to the Falcons 16 years after he left for Princeton – is making an effort to keep them, though obviously that’s part of it. Instead, it’s more that Scott feels an urgency to get to know the players to start to lay the foundation for all that follows.
“When a recruit comes in from somewhere else, and they see and know that, ‘Man, the guys here know how important they are to the coaches,’ that, often times, is the best recruiting tool that you have,” Scott said. “That’s what’s going to be most important to me during this time so that we start re-energizing the program the right way.”
This part of the process will be complicated by the forced separation caused by the coronavirus. The juniors, sophomores and freshmen were sent home from the academy in March, and Scott remains in Georgia. So he began making phone calls on Tuesday.
Scott said he won’t sugarcoat what lays ahead for the players as they switch to his famously intense style. But he feels his past success at the academy bolsters his credentials with the team (“They know how we played. They know we were tough.”) and the inherent makeup of most cadet-athletes makes them more receptive to hear it.
“They’re voicing on their own their feelings about wanting to be challenged and developing in the manner I spoke of, and it was coming from them,” Scott said. “Almost sort of having this chip on this shoulder and sort of wanting to prove that we’re good. And we’re going to be good. That really hit home with me and just continues to say we’re going to re-energize this program and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it.”
Players reached out off the record to The Gazette and backed up what Scott said.
“After him talking to us (Tuesday), we are all pretty excited for what he brings to the table as our coach,” a returning player from the team said. “We know he brings a lot of passion and intensity on the coaching side so we are looking forward to bringing that same level of energy on the court.”
Added another player, “He’s a grinder. I feel that he’s going to rip into us, because he expects us to be great. And that’ll be good for us. I don’t think it’ll be easy playing for him, but I’m excited for the challenge.”
Scott didn’t comment on any of the players individually in his introductory teleconference on Wednesday, but said he was familiar with the roster. He said further evaluations will have to come later, because what he’ll ask of them is different than the previous system required. He said that doesn’t invalidate any of the experience the returning group has gained, but his approach might highlight different strengths and players might be able to separate themselves by picking it up more quickly than others.
“What I’m going to do is make sure everybody is going to be equal in that regard,” he said.
Assuming sophomore point guard A.J. Walker, who is in the transfer portal, does not return, the Falcons will not be long on proven talent. Rising seniors Chris Joyce (6.4 ppg in 67 career games with a 34.9 3-point percentage), Keaton Van Soelen (267 career rebounds and 37 blocks in 87 games, including 40 starts) and Ameka Akaya (56.3 shooting percentage in 49 career games) are the most experienced players.
A cadet’s commitment doesn’t kick in until he begins a class as a junior. So only that trio is locked in as far as returning players go.
The only sophomores on the roster are forwards Abe Kinrade and Isaac Monson. The freshman class, led by Mason Taylor, made an impression within the team this past year and stands poised to take on larger roles, and there’s a group incoming from the prep school to join them.
“In watching the film, we have some pieces,” Scott said. “We’re going be able to sort of re-energize the program pretty quickly. I’m not going to put a time frame on it, but I like what I see and I can’t wait to get started working with the guys.”