The Hidden Truth: Few can match Falcons' start

Originally Published: November 30, 2006
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

When you get outside the Top 25 on any given night, the scores streaming across the ESPN BottomLine tend to blend together. There's usually only so much CLEM 67 FURM 58 you can process.

Every now and again, though, a final appears and you do a double take, even glancing to the left to see if there's the NCAAW tag denoting a women's game, which would explain why the score seems detached from men's basketball normalcy.

This season's first instance of that for me was Air Force 79, Stanford 45. With Stanford in a rebuilding year, the Falcons winning the second-round CBE Classic game wasn't a surprise, but the margin of victory – in Palo Alto – sure was.

Then three days later, it happened again. Air Force 84, Colorado 46. In Boulder. Uh, what? Now I was intrigued.

Of course, I tuned in to watch the Falcons take on Duke in the CBE semis, a game in which Air Force looked overmatched in the first half. The eventual 15-point loss gave me an excuse to skip the next night's game when, of course, the Falcons throttled Texas Tech after the break to win by 14.

A week went by and I had almost forgotten about the Falcons – until Air Force 94, Wake Forest 58 stared back at me from our Web site's scoreboard page.

OK, now this was getting silly. Three wins by 30 or more over teams from BCS football conferences, none of which were played at the Falcons' Clune Arena?

It turns out the trio of big-margin W's is more than silly. It's possibly historic – and it says that Air Force is a lot more formidable than many might think.

According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, since the 1999-2000 season, there is only one other team from outside the "Big Six" conferences with at least two wins by that margin over Big Six schools. New Mexico also beat Colorado this season, by 41, and thrashed Mississippi last season by 53, but both of those wins were home games in the Lobos' intimidating Pit. Overall, there have been only two seasons since 1999-2000 (before this current one) in which there were at least three total wins of that margin involving a non-major school over a Big Six team.

Furthermore, if you look across all teams – Big Six or not – in that same time frame, there have been only 15 cases of a team having at least three wins by 30 points or more over BCS-league competition in one season. All 15 teams were at least at-large worthy and 13 of those teams got a top-four seed in that season's NCAA Tournament. Nine of them were No. 1 seeds. Only one of the 15 (Kansas last season) didn't win at least one NCAA Tournament game.

Dan Nwaelele
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesDan Nwaelele is the Falcons' top 3-point marksman, but all of the starters shoot it well.
All of this begs three questions: 1) How are the Falcons playing so well? 2) Is it a fluke? and 3) What happened in the Duke game?

For the first query, let Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik explain.

"We have a great chemistry on this team and we have a philosophy where no one cares who gets the credit," he said. "We have a saying, 'Great things can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.' … All we want to do is maximize each possession. We want to be high energy with cuts and reads, and have unselfishness and variety in our offense to read defenses and to maximize that possession. And when a shot goes up, we want to make sure we have 2.5 players back on the race to make sure the opponent doesn't get anything easy in transition. We want to make sure they get a perimeter shot, with the wrong person taking that shot, get a group rebound, and do it again and do it again.

"It's something that we engrain in them every day in practice. If we're disciplined that way and we play unselfishly at both ends and give greater effort than the opponent, we've given ourselves an honest chance to win – and that's the way we approach it."

The statistics back up Bzdelik's assertions. The Falcons are one of the most balanced teams you'll see anywhere. Prior to Wednesday night's win over Texas-Pan American, all five starters were averaging between 28 and 33 minutes a game and scoring between 11 and 15 points per game. All were also grabbing between 3.3 and 6.1 rebounds and dishing out between 1.9 and 3.0 assists a game. The team's leading scorer, Jacob Burtschi, scored 24 points in the win at Stanford – and two in the rout of Colorado. The second-leading scorer, Dan Nwaelele, had 27 points combined in the three BCS-team blowouts.

So is this level of performance a fluke? It appears not.

Air Force's starting lineup consists of four seniors and a junior, so the Falcons have ample experience at the major-college level. What's more, as Bzdelik points out, this is the first season this senior class has had the same head coach for a second season (Bzdelik succeeded Chris Mooney, who left for Richmond after only one season in charge after replacing Joe Scott, who went to Princeton). That combination of seasoning and increased familiarity has led to consistently better performances across the board, and the improvement in each category appears to be sustainable.

"[Now in Year 2,] they understand what we want [and] I understand our team better," Bzdelik said. "They are really driven to be as good at they can be. We work very hard on fundamentals. I want our players to improve on individual development. I did compare the stats after eight games to last season [at the same point], and we had improved in every category."

The following chart shows the Falcons' improved performance metrics under Bzdelik from last season through the first part of this one:

Air Force's improvement
2005-06 2006-07
Off. efficiency 112.0 125.2
Def. efficiency 96.6 92.6
3-pt % 40.1% 43.1%
2-pt % 56.1 62.1
TO rate 19.2% 16.6%
FT rate 24.5 35.4

Basically, the Falcons are just playing better in almost every calculable category. They're even on the plus side of the rebounding equation, which is very unusual given the team's philosophy of near-concession on the offensive glass. According to Bzdelik, it all goes back to the way the Falcons practice and prepare.

"You have to know me. I coach out of fear that my team isn't prepared enough. That I'm not ready," he said. "Fear motivates me no matter who we play – maybe that goes back to the possession-by-possession deal. I fight every possession, and I think my team has that personality. … There are consequences in practice – when we shoot, we count. We run the offense against no defense, and we have the coaches charting mistakes. … It's about [doing things] hard and right, so when we get in a game, we want it hard and right."

Jacob Burtschi
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRebounding still isn't the Falcons' forte, but they're doing better this season.
The final question – what happened against Duke – may be the most important, at least as far as the Falcons' NCAA Tournament aspirations go. When most of the nation last saw the Falcons, they were being overwhelmed by Illinois' athleticism in a 4 vs. 13 game last March (a game that most bubble watchers thought Air Force shouldn't even have been in). When Duke basically throttled the Falcons in Kansas City, it made you think about the potential ceiling for this particular squad.

Bzdelik, though, believes his Falcons will be better for the experience.

"I thought we were a little starstruck in the first 10 minutes [against Duke] and we were unsure and made some bad turnovers and we didn't give ourselves a chance offensively or defensively," he said. "I'm not a coach that doesn't give credit to our opponent, and they did a lot of things that made us act that way. We learned from that – the next night against Texas Tech and then Wake Forest. I think that has helped tremendously with our growth, and hopefully in that situation again, we'll react better."

The Mountain West Conference might want to hope that's not true.

Nuggets (with a side of context)
• When you think Princeton Offense, you think backdoor cuts, layups and 3-point shots. You think clock-grinding, crisp-cutting, no-dribbling basketball. You do not think "boatload of free throws," which is why it's incredibly surprising to see Brown, now a modified Princeton Offense team under first-year head coach Craig Robinson, as the D-I squad that derives the highest percentage of its total points (31.3 percent) from the line. The Bears were helped by going to the line an astounding 60 times (making 47) in Saturday night's win over Quinnipiac. For reference, Princeton is 151st (20.5 percent) in this category and Northwestern, where Robinson was an assistant under former Princeton coach Bill Carmody before coming to Brown, is 308th (14.9 percent). What's almost as crazy is that Harvard is No. 3. Since when did the Ivy League morph into the Big East?

• Things went a bit better this week for Martin Iti, but went a whole lot better for his New Mexico State teammates during the back end of their home-and-home with in-state rival New Mexico. Iti followed up last week's 0-for-8 from the line (in a three-point loss) with a 1-for-4 performance, but this time the Aggies rolled, winning 103-72. More notable about this game is that only one team in the country (Rutgers, against Bradley on Nov. 24) has allowed at least 100 points on fewer possessions than New Mexico did in this one. Overall, the 1.44 points per possession allowed by the Lobos was the 11th-worst performance this season in Division I.

• Indiana might still be getting used to Kelvin Sampson's system, but on Wednesday night, the Hoosiers (statistically) played the cleanest game in Division I so far this season. In a 92-40 romp over Western Illinois, IU committed only two turnovers (against 19 assists) on 63 possessions, for a turnover rate of 3.2 percent. That goes a long way toward explaining how WIU had 21 fewer field goal attempts, as the Leathernecks had 18 turnovers (and, almost as remarkable, only three assists).

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.

ALSO SEE