There’s a mouse in the house!
“Wait a minute. That’s one of our recruits!” Air Force men’s basketball coach Dave Pilipovich joked on Monday as a rascally rodent raced under his chair during a press conference.
There’s the 17th-ranked Nevada Wolf Pack here on Tuesday! Coach P is buying a ticket for the first 1,000 folks to arrive at Clune Arena.
“I’ve only got 999 tickets left, because that guy (the rogue mouse) gets one,” he said.
Wait, there’s more. There’s another valid reason — other than the Wolf Pack — to catch the Falcons’ final home game: to tell your buddies you knew them before they were a big deal.
“.... a really exciting Air Force team that’s been playing really well as of late.”
File this one away for this time next year. If the Falcons aren’t hunting double-digit conference wins on the eve of March Madness, the mice took over the academy or somebody got hurt, knock on wood.
The Air Force arrow has always been pointing toward the 2019-20 season. That’s when top scorers Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan are seniors, and point guard A.J. Walker no longer is a freshman. That’s when three straight wins — the streak at the moment — should be considered a decent week. That’s when the mice of the MWC should turn into the cats of the MWC.
What better way to preview what’s coming than to give Nevada a run for its money on ESPN2?
“Playing as well as you can to finish this season, and maybe playing another day or so in the Mountain West tournament, and then only graduating the one senior, then everybody’s back,” Pilipovich said. “Carrying that over, maybe playing a little bit more (in the conference tournament) would aid in their development next year.”
That’s what the Falcons should do. They should look at the landscape of the Mountain West and know this isn’t the ACC, or even the WCC. They should see this is a Mountain West that’s taken a hit both in the advanced numbers (where it ranks 10th out of 32 leagues, its lowest mark in five years, according to Ken Pomeroy’s digits), and in terms of a national profile — outside the nationally ranked Wolf Pack. And that’s before the Pack loses eight seniors.
They should see an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for Scottie and Swan to be the best 1-2 punch in the league next season, a pair of scorers who can get a bucket without a backdoor cut. If they’re 8-8 now, why can’t they be 11-5 next season? Those are the kinds of goals this group should set. Here, check out what Scottie told The Gazette’s Brent Briggeman after Air Force smacked Wyoming on Saturday: “We’re not afraid of Nevada coming into our house at all. We can get any team.”
Dig the bravado. Confidence is key. But let’s not go poking the bear. The worst thing that could’ve happened for Air Force leading into this one was Nevada losing at Utah State on Saturday. Nevada coach Eric Musselman is a bunch of fun things, from the fastest text messager you would ever see, to a fitness junkie whose workouts are famous enough a TV network filmed him and his wife at the gym.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘That won’t be us,’” Pilipovich said.
Musselman, whom UCLA should consider for its opening, also has a penchant for getting his guys fired up for bounce-back games, or even second halves. Nevada’s the most complete team in the Mountain West since Jimmer Fredette’s final run at BYU in 2011. (Yes, it’s really been that long since Jimmer. I was thinking the same thing.) If the Wolf Pack learns that offensive touches shouldn’t dictate defensive effort, it has the players to go far.
Final Four? Don’t think so. Elite Eight? Sure, because the Wolf Pack carries eight seniors.
Seniors still matter in college basketball, and guess who’s going to have good ones next year?
Air Force can kickstart next season — the one this era has been pointing toward — by playing well before an expected crowd of 3,000 cadets, whose academy rearranged their schedules to allow for attending this sweet game. The school practiced court-storming security measures on Monday, just in case, but it will take divine intervention to carry Air Force over this Nevada squad. The program has four wins against ranked teams, three from Coach P, who jumped onto a chair as the mouse came through.
“Has this ever happened before? Please put this on my tombstone — I hope it’s not soon — but they’re going to say, ‘Remember the press conference when the mouse walked in on him?’”
Remember that March when Air Force turned the corner?
(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)