Air Force’s sixth attempt at a lineup combination just might be the one that works.
Forward Keaton Van Soelen slid into the starting five on Wednesday, joining last week’s new addition – Sid Tomes – to go along with lineup mainstays Lavelle Scottie, Ryan Swan and AJ Walker.
The Falcons topped Boise State 85-78 at Clune Arena.
Van Soelen grabbed nine rebounds, scored five points despite taking just three shots and largely held NBA prospect Derrick Alston Jr. in check, as the touted wing player made 5-of-12 shots and had a team-low plus-minus of -9 points in his 32 minutes.
Tomes played lockdown defense on Justinian Jessup, the Longmont native closing in on Jimmer Fredette’s Mountain West career 3-point record. Jessup was 1 of 7 on 3-point attempts. Tomes also added 11 points.
Then Scottie, Swan and Walker did their thing, scoring a combined 56 points on 20-of-37 shooting.
It’s not like any of these players were new to the lineup. Tomes, a senior, has made 47 career starts. Van Soelen, a junior, has made 38 starts.
But this was the first time the five started together this season.
“I love the lineup,” Scottie said.
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Caleb Morris played 14 minutes off the bench, scoring eight points. Chris Joyce played 10 minutes. Reserve forward Ameka Akaya and point guard LeSean Brown were also used, as the Falcons went nine deep.
This lineup brings some particular advantages in that Tomes and Van Soelen are known primarily for skills other than scoring.
“When you’ve got a guy who really buys into the defense like Sid Tomes, it helps,” coach Dave Pilipovich said.
“Keaton can be the best defender ever. When he wants to be,” Swan said. “When he wants to be, I’d give him No. 1 (defensive ranking on the team).”
In conference games, Air Force (9-9, 3-3 Mountain West) ranks second among the Mountain West’s 11 teams in scoring offense but second from the bottom in scoring defense. The Falcons are 0-5 when allowing more than 80 points and 4-0 when allowing fewer than 59.
“We feel like when we play defense, we can play with anybody,” Swan said.
With the team’s Big Three taking on the brunt of the scoring load (in conference games Scottie is averaging 19.2 points, Swan 17.3 and Walker 15.7), flexibility is created to find the best defensive combinations with the other two spots.
Pilipovich said the lineup used on Wednesday isn’t necessarily the permanent answer in that regard. Van Soelen’s skill set made him a perfect defensive foil for the 6-foot-9 Alston, but against a team like Colorado State on Saturday the Falcons might go shorter at that position to handle quicker guards.
Scottie said he felt confident that whichever lineup emerges, the group will find a way to play well together.
“The chemistry on this team, I would say, of all the teams I’ve been on here, it’s been the highest,” he said.