Air Force has been one of the nicest stories from the first month of the season. Perhaps in response to the at-large controversy their selection triggered in March, the Falcons have smashed Stanford, Colorado and Wake Forest and beaten Texas Tech, all the while charming the nation with a souped-up version of the Princeton offense. All indications are that Year 4 of the Falcons' hoops emergence could be the best yet.
Much more quietly, though, Division I's two other service academies also have gotten off to shockingly good starts.
Army has been one of the worst teams in the country for the past four seasons, not having finished with an RPI better than No. 316 since 2002. Today, the Black Knights are 5-2 and No. 133 in the RPI, with a credible nine-point loss at Missouri on its ledger. With upcoming games at The Citadel and then home to transitional D-I NJIT and non-D-I SUNY Purchase and SUNY Maritime, Army actually could be 9-2 heading to South Bend to take Notre Dame -- after the Black Knights won a total of 10 D-I games over the last four seasons combined.
Navy hasn't been quite as bad as its archrival, but it's been too close for any real bragging rights. The Midshipmen haven't been nationally relevant since a certain admiral grew six inches and led them to the 1986 Elite Eight. They haven't even been modestly good since 2001, when the Midshipmen lost to Holy Cross by four in the Patriot League championship game. Since then, Navy's best season-ending RPI has been No. 286.
Seven games into this season, though, the 5-2 Midshipmen sit at No. 78, with double-digit wins over MAAC (Loyola, Md.) and CAA (William & Mary) teams and a nine-point road loss to Villanova on their résumé . With upcoming games against Longwood, Howard and non-D-I Delaware Valley and Washington, Md. sandwiched around a home game against Ivy favorite Penn, the Midshipmen have a chance to be 10-2 heading to Georgetown.
So what gives?
"I actually picked Army fourth [in the preseason]," Navy coach Billy Lange said of his Patriot League rival. "They weren't very far from winning four or five more games last season and now they have a lot of upperclassmen."
"Navy's doing well. They're shooting the ball extremely well. They've had some impressive [nonconference] wins and [junior guard Greg] Sprink is an outstanding player," Army coach Jim Crews said.
From early returns, it appears that both teams' improved fortunes correspond to significantly better performance around the 3-point arc. Army is compiling markedly better 3-point field goal percentages on both ends of the floor. Despite a pedestrian 2-for-10 performance against helter-skelter VMI in their last outing, the Black Knights are shooting a robust 43.7 percent from the arc as a team -- good for 24th in the country and a full 8.9 percent better than last season.
That's a startling jump for a roster that returned four of the team's top five scorers from last season, with 6-foot-8 freshman Chris Walker, who hasn't attempted a 3 this season, as the only real impact addition.
"Offensively, we've been able to get more balance [than last season]," Crews said. "We've been able to drive to the basket [more] and dump the ball inside, which is helping spread the defense out and giving us better looks [from 3-point range]."
Conversely, Army's 3-point defense has improved from 37.6 percent allowed last season to a stingy 30.5 percent so far this year. The combined impact? Army's net scoring margin per 100 possessions has gone from almost -23 to over +7.
"We've played some unorthodox teams so far," Crews said. "I think VMI takes about 40 3s a game, so [closing out on shooters] is definitely something our kids were made aware of."
Navy's improvement seems almost strictly on the offensive side of the ball, where it has increased its scoring per 100 possessions by a startling 17 points over last season. The Midshipmen are taking an extremely high 50.6 percent of their shots from behind the arc (the sixth-highest rate in the country), and are connecting on almost 42 percent of them -- a devastating combo when the shots are going down. (In their two losses, Navy shot a combined 18-of-56 from 3.) Add in a healthy improvement in the rate of 2-point shots made, and Navy has gone from 302nd in the nation in effective field goal percentage to 12th this season.
"We run very little offense to get 3-point shots," Lange said. "It's been kids buying in to sharing the basketball, running the offense. It's not gimicky. We spend a lot of time shooting the ball, it's an important skill-set. We are who we are I feel good that we know our identity. Now we're just working on perfecting it."
Unlike Army, though, the cause has been helped by an influx of new blood. Three freshmen -- 6-10 forward Trey Stanton, guard Chris Harris and forward T.J. Topercer -- are next in the scoring line behind returnees Greg Sprink and Kaleo Kina, the Midshipmen's two double-digit scorers from last season, and the three have combined to knock down 32-of-69 from behind the arc. Navy simply didn't have this type of shooting depth last season, and perhaps just as important, lost some more prototypical inside players from that roster.
"I was fortunate to inherit some good workhorses from [former Navy coach] Don DeVoe that we could punch the ball into, [but this season] we simply don't have that option," Lange said. "We have some guys who I think will be good options, but right now, we simply don't have that option. With a 6-8, 215-pound freshman going up against 6-10, 255-pound seniors, you can get the ball inside and make it look like you are trying to run [traditional post offense], but that wouldn't benefit us right now."
With the gradual implementation of scholarships in the Patriot League over the last decade or so, it has been difficult for the academies -- with their accompanying military commitments post-graduation -- to compete on equal footing. If the early season is any indication, though, this will be the Patriot League's most competitive season from top to bottom in quite a while.
Nuggets with a side of context
• New Mexico State big man Martin Iti went 0-for-8 from the free throw line (despite 7-for-9 from the field) Tuesday night against in-state rival New Mexico in a three-point loss at the Pit. Overall, the Aggies shot just 12-for-28 from the line, although the Lobos weren't much better, going 15-for-27. Iti's eight free throw attempts without a make almost doubled the previous mark this season for a foul-line 0-fer -- four players had gone 0-for-5. The silver lining? Iti gets another crack at the Lobos when NMSU hosts the back end of the annual home-and-home on Dec. 5.
• Tuesday night also featured three of this season's 16 worst field goal percentage performances -- a staggering convergence of bricklaying nationwide. Dartmouth, with four potential starters missing from the lineup, clunked its way to a 12-for-48 (25.0 percent) shooting performance in an 83-32 loss at Kansas. Mississippi Valley State did slightly worse, connecting on only 15-of-62 (24.2 percent) at USC in a 63-39 setback.
Both the Big Green and Delta Devils were trumped, though, by Southern, which connected on only 10-of-48 (20.8 percent) at Florida in an 83-27 whitewashing. Incredibly, at 34.7 percent overall, Southern is only the fifth worst shooting team in the 10-team SWAC, ahead of Grambling, Prairie View, Alabama State and Alcorn State as the conference teams play their typically daunting nonconference schedules.
• Our site has documented Nicholls State's insane season-opening schedule that saw the Colonels play four games in four days between Starkville, Miss., and Seattle, followed by trips to LSU and Texas. Now we're here to tell you that the Colonels are much better than their current 0-8 record would indicate.
What Nicholls didn't budget for when they compiled that schedule was that star guard Stefan Blaszczynski would miss those first six games with an injury. Blaszczynski returned to pour in 21 points in a competitive loss at Ole Miss and 27 in Tuesday's disappointing 92-87 overtime defeat at Auburn, a game in which the Colonels led by 17 with 13 minutes left.
The other byproduct of Blaszczynski's absence was the continued emergence of junior wing Adonis Gray, who scored at least 20 points in four of the six games Blaszczynski missed. The potent 1-2 scoring combo should start paying dividends for the Colonels now that the schedule is softening up.
• Credit to colleagues Andy Katz and Doug Gottlieb, who were among those in these parts who pumped Oregon in the preseason as a sleeper. The now 6-0 Ducks dumped Georgetown 57-50 Wednesday night, adding a marquee road win to their victory over Rice in Houston in the first game of this two-game trip.
You might want to be a bit wary of the Ducks' hot start though -- Oregon currently is allowing an almost unfathomably low 17.5 percent from 3-point range this season. If you take out Cal State Northridge's 6-for-13 performance, the Ducks' other five foes have combined to shoot 11-of-84 from the arc. In comparison, Oregon allowed 35.6 percent from 3 last season, good for 214th in the nation.
The impact has been that Oregon is allowing 20 fewer points per 100 possessions than last year -- a hard-to-believe improvement for a team that plays very fast and never has been known for its defense. Perhaps the addition of 5-foot-6 scoring wiz Tajuan Porter to the mix has improved Oregon's D drastically as well, but once this 3-point percentage starts to normalize a bit, we'll have a better understanding of how much better Oregon really is.
• One final note along those same lines: North Carolina has gone 2-1 in its past three games, all against ranked opponents, despite allowing 50.0 percent shooting from 3-point range (36-of-72) over that span. For the season, the Tar Heels are allowing over 40 percent shooting from the arc -- a number that figures to go down as the numerous freshmen playing heavy minutes for the Heels get more comfortable playing team defense, in transition and in the half court.
Given that they are winning many of their games in fairly decisive fashion already, any type of significant improvement in this area would bode extremely well for the Tar Heels' chances moving forward.
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him with comments. Some of the data used in this column is from midmajority.com and kenpom.com.