I’ve fielded a number of questions about Air Force basketball today, which itself is telling.
When the Falcons aren’t playing well, they are not a topic of conversation.
The first came from my 9-year-old daughter, who was home sleeping when Air Force’s 74-60 victory over Boise State concluded on Tuesday.
“Who won the game last night,” she asked at breakfast.
“Air Force,” I said.
“So, what does that mean?” she replied.
Now, this undoubtedly came from the fact that she sat through a lot of football on Sunday where the games had direct consequences. I may have mentioned a few times that if the Chiefs won, they would be going to their first Super Bowl in my lifetime. (Spoiler alert: they did not)
So, she was probably just checking to see if an Air Force victory meant it would similarly advance to some next stage.
But the “what does that mean?” stuck with me, and not just because it took me back to my youth and Lutheran Small Catechism memorization. Really, what does it mean that Air Force won another Mountain West game, it’s third in its past four games? To me, it means coach Dave Pilipovich’s team is giving itself a chance at something down the road.
The Falcons (8-11, 3-4 Mountain West) are just half a game out of fifth place in the standings. The top five in the league get that all-important first-round bye in the conference tournament. The Falcons still play two games apiece against Wyoming and San Jose State, who are both 0-5 in league play. They still host Colorado State, which is 2-3. There are a lot of wins out there to grab, and there’s no reason to think this team, with its talent and the way it’s playing right now, can’t collect a bunch of them.
Every win also increases the chance that the Colorado Springs community takes notice and starts returning to games.
The win also means Pilipovich, barring a late-season collapse, can rest easier about his job security. It’s doubtful, though possible, that a new athletic director would come into a service academy where the coach just beat San Diego State, UNLV and Boise State in succession at home by double figures and with a roster that will return almost entirely intact next year and feel the need to make a quick change.
So, the win didn’t mean anything in terms of the short-term; but it could become part of a meaningful whole.
“How does this run compare to ours?”
A former player asked me that, and we discussed the Falcons teams in 2014-15 that also won 3 of 4 in conference play, and the 2015-16 team that won 4 of 6 Mountain West games during a stretch in February.
My thoughts quickly turned back to Kirk Hinrich and the Kansas Jayhawks.
In 2002, the Jayhawks ended a nine-season Final Four drought. For years, Roy Williams’ teams with players like Jacque Vaughn, Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce had fallen short, but this one with Hinrich, Nick Collison and Drew Gooden broke through.
I covered a media event prior to the Final Four and asked Hinrich why that was.
“We’re just better,” was his short response.
And sometimes the truth really is that simple.
This is, in my opinion, the best team Pilipovich has had since the 2012-13 squad went 18-14 and finished 8-8 in the Mountain West. And it might be better that that one.
What sets this team apart is the frontcourt. With Lavelle Scottie, Ryan Swan, Keaton Van Soelen and Ameka Akaya on the interior, they can defend and score inside against anyone in the Mountain West.
To be sure, recent Air Force teams have had some quality inside players like Taylor Broekhuis, Frank Toohey, Marek Olesinski and Zach Moer. But they haven’t had a group of bigs as talented, versatile and deep as this.
This frontcourt is just better, providing a blueprint to victories that is more sustainable than hoping for heroics from the guards.
And speaking of the guards, this group has more length at those spots than past teams. Also, you can't ignore the addition of freshman point guard A.J. Walker, who has has averaged 14 ppg in this four-game run that included the home victories over San Diego State, UNLV and Boise State and a competitive loss at No. 7 Nevada.
Another difference between this team and those from those two other Air Force teams is that the gelling is occurring much earlier in the season. The ‘14-15 and ‘15-16 teams each won just two of their first 10 Mountain West games, so the late-season improvement was laudable and seemed to portend well for the future, but it wasn’t like this, where the payoff could come in March as opposed to the next year.
I do think the ’14-15 team could have been much better had Kamryn Williams not gone down in the conference opener. But that’s the kind of issue that has confronted Pilipovich nearly every season. What if Tre’ Parker hadn’t transferred? Or Matt Mooney? Or Darrius Parker? Or if Max Yon hadn’t missed some of his senior season? Or if DeLovell Earls had been consistently healthy? Or if intriguing talents like Joe Tuss or Dane Norman had progressed as hoped?
Sure, every coach has a what-if every now and again, but most can microwave up a quick fix in the offseason. At Air Force, where you can’t just go fetch a transfer and you often send the top recruits to a year at the prep school, Pilipovich has to patiently prepare his teams in a crockpot. Find yourself without a key ingredient and you’re stuck with a subpar meal.
This year, the roster is what Pilipovich and his veteran staffed envisioned. At least at this point.
“Can they make a run in the Mountain West Tournament?” a colleague asked.
“I don’t see why not,” I replied.
Clearly Nevada is the toast of the conference right now, but the Wolf Pack is hardly invincible, as evidenced by a lopsided loss at New Mexico and a victory over the same Boise State team the Falcons just steamrolled that came down to a shot in the final seconds.
Also, in their past two meetings, Air Force has outscored Nevada 64-61 collectively in the first half and the Wolf Pack held the lead for 32 minutes, 36 seconds of the 80 combined minutes. Yes, Nevada is the better team, but the Falcons have played them close. And if they meet at the tournament it will mark their third meeting in a span of less than two months, so Air Force will fully understand what it is facing.
Beyond Nevada, there doesn’t appear to be much separating Air Force from the rest of the conference competition. At least not so much that a one-game playoff wouldn't be a toss-up.
And that’s comparing those teams to Air Force as it stands now. But each year under Pilipovich, the team has improved down the stretch.
Credit that to coaching, or to the fact that Air Force doesn’t have the option of team ball over the summer to rev the engine early, or that the Falcons’ disciplined style holds up better when the season starts to get long. Whatever the cause, the improvement has been evident: From 2014-18, the Falcons won just 22.9 percent of their regular-season conference games before Feb. 1 while taking 38.5 percent after.
Listen, I’m happy to field the questions and find it nice to see that the NCAA basketball team based in our city is starting to draw some attention, but I don’t know how things will play out over the 49 days and 11 Air Force games that separate today from the beginning of the Mountain West Tournament.
And neither does Pilipovich.
“I like where we’re heading,” he said. “We’ve just got to stay healthy, keep playing and keep believing in each other, but keep defending. We’ve got to keep defending. Who knows where we’ll end up, but I’m excited to see.”