Air Force soaring in MWC

Originally Published: January 28, 2004
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

We step away from the offensive end for a moment, from the precise spacing and back-door cuts and long-range shooting more accurate than Dana Carvey imitating George Bush.

Have you heard the one about Air Force basketball?

It seems the cadets are as proficient defending the rim as they are the country.

"We always tell the guys the key to becoming a better player starts on the (defensive) side of the ball," Air Force coach Joe Scott said. "You know, when you're holding people to 47 points a game and forcing 18 turnovers in the half-court and keeping teams to 26 percent on 3-pointers, you're out there guarding people."

And, ultimately, beating them.

In this case, 14 of 16 opponents this season.

In this case, a school-record 12 straight and counting.

The national story that has become Air Force hoops continued gaining strength this week, when the Falcons improved to 14-2 overall and 4-0 in Mountain West Conference play with home victories against BYU and Utah.

Air Force (unbeaten in a conference where all other seven teams have at least two defeats) has received votes in both Top 25 polls the last few weeks, another indication of how far the Academy has come under a former all-Ivy league point guard who played for legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril.

Joe Scott
Air Force head coach Joe Scott is stressing the same principles he learned while an assistant at Princeton.

Scott is the fourth-year Falcons coach who inherited a program that had not managed an above-.500 season since 1977-78, whose often fiery and intense courtside demeanor has played well for a group of disciplined young men intent on proving their style can exist among the nation's elite.

Allowing opponents fewer points than they are accustomed is nothing new for Air Force, whose deliberate offensive scheme limits another's opportunity to score. But never has Air Force offered this much skill and size and athleticism. Scott has upgraded the program's recruiting to an all-time high, and with better players has come a team that is not only winning, but doing so comfortably.

Win at New Mexico by 26. Beat BYU by 22. Defeat Utah by 13.

"Air Force used to just pack it in defensively and take its chances,'' said Colorado State coach Dale Layer, whose team lost its conference opener at home to Air Force by eight. "But now they're extending and switching on their man-defense. They're tougher. They're more physical. They're in the middle of our conference athletically, and when was the last time you could say that about any Air Force team?

"College basketball fans might be surprised at what Air Force is doing, but no coach in the country is."

The names are not ones you found gracing preseason magazine covers, but are slowly emerging ones to remember. Nick Welch is a 6-foot-8 sophomore center who averages 9.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, shoots 54 percent on 3s and gives the Falcons the kind of physical, active post presence the program has lacked; Tim Keller is a junior guard averaging a team-high 11.1 points; Antoine Hood is a sophomore guard shooting 43 percent on 3s; senior forward Joel Gerlach is a three-year starter; and senior wing A.J. Kuhle never met a charge he wouldn't take.

The Falcons are winning by an average of 15 points and shooting 50.4 percent, but Scott is not ready to agree with some of his coaching brethren that his team is running the Princeton offense better than at any point in college history.

Scott was an assistant at Princeton in 1998, when the Tigers went 14-0 in the Ivy League and were ranked has high as seventh nationally.

"We're not to that point yet, but we're on our way to that point," Scott said. "You know, I have always felt the true test of being good is being successful in good times, when people who never used to look you in the eye are now slapping you on the back and you're the toast of the town. Then, you get up the next morning and get to work 15 minutes early to work on the things that need improving. Our team has been really good at that.

"I really think the program not being good in the past has helped us. My guys want to prove all that stuff is gone. They know that the second they think they're better than San Diego State or UNLV or whoever it is we're playing, we'll lose by 20. We know how good our league is, how good the players and coaches in it are. Our guys just want to sort of keep this going and make a much larger statement, to do more than we already have."

Said the sophomore Welch: "Four conference games does not win a conference championship. That is the one honor we all really want. We haven't really accomplished anything yet."

Oh, but they have. The question is no longer whether Scott can make Air Force basketball legitimate, but rather how far can the Falcons ultimately go.

You might bet against them, but know this: Those coaches preparing to play them won't.

Games to Watch
Stanford at Oregon, Saturday
The Cardinal can go to 17-0 overall with a win at Oregon State on Thursday before arriving at McArthur Court, where it has dropped two straight. Oregon leads the conference in 3-point shooting (42.1 percent) and 3-point shooting defense (29.4). Stanford has out-rebounded every opponent this season except Kansas. In the first seven league games, point guard Chris Hernandez shot 61.9 percent on 3s.
Air Force at San Diego State, Saturday
Any game involving the Falcons and their 12-game win streak is big right now. Air Force coach Joe Scott says SDSU, "has the best players in our league," although Steve Fisher's team has dropped consecutive games after beginning MWC play 2-0. SDSU swept Air Force last season by scores of 63-48 and 67-53. The Falcons follow their game in San Diego with a Big Monday appearance at UNLV.
Fresno State at Nevada, Saturday
The Bulldogs (10-7, 6-2 WAC) began the week one-half game behind first-place Hawaii, but in this game play a Nevada squad trying to remain in contention and one that is 9-0 at home. The Wolf Pack (11-6, 5-3) has won those nine games by an average of 15.8 points and just took out Rice by 25.
Hawaiian Chemistry 101

Hawaii coach Riley Wallace sees it and so do opposing peers. The Rainbow Warriors might be emerging as the WAC's best team this season for one major reason:

Togetherness.

"You can tell it's a very close-knit group," Rice coach Willis Wilson said. "It's a very unselfish team. They don't have one guy that if you can shut him down, you can win. They all play so well together. They're spontaneous, create good movement offensively and do a nice job defensively. Hawaii is probably the best team in our league right now and I don't think anyone would take exception with that statement."

Hawaii entered the week 14-3 overall and 5-1 in conference. More impressive, Wallace's team was 3-0 on the road entering games at Rice (Wednesday) and Tulsa (Saturday). It's a given Hawaii will annually be tough to beat on the islands, but if it becomes just as dangerous on the mainland ...

"We're playing pretty good defense and that usually gives you a chance to win on the road," said Wallace, in his 17th season. "This team is more together than any I've ever had. They all really like each other and work hard in practice. They feel they can win any game we're in."

Senior guard Michael Kuebler is one of the league's more improved players, emerging from the shadow of former standout Carl English to average a team-best 19.5 points thus far. Also, the play of key newcomers -- sophomore forward Julian Sensley (10.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), junior forward Jeff Blackett (6.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and sophomore guard Logan Lee (41.4 percent on 3s) -- has created the kind of balance Wilson and other WAC coaches rave about.

Senior center Haim Shimonovich has worked himself into shape and averages 7.3 points and 7.2 rebounds.

"Everyone has found their roles and fit in," said Wallace. "It's one of the reasons we continue to get better."

Around the West

  • The first half of Pac-10 play ends this week and the important race appears to be for third place behind Stanford and Arizona. It might be a stretch at this point to think the league will receive more than three NCAA bids, so a second-half fight between teams such as UCLA (5-3 in conference entering a home game against USC on Wednesday), Oregon (4-3) and Cal (4-3) might prove interesting. The Bears are beginning to show the promise most predicted would surface once all their young players gained experience.

    Cal, coming off a home sweep of USC and UCLA, plays at the Oregon schools this week.

    "Traditionally, finishing in the upper-tier of this conference means a postseason bid and a (top-three) finish usually guarantees you a place in the NCAA Tournament," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "All of that is pretty good incentive for your players. We have shown signs of improvement. From day one, our goal was to get better with this young group."

    Freshman forward Leon Powe ranks sixth among league players in scoring (15.5) and first in rebounding (9.7).

  • Oregon wing Luke Jackson has emerged as a first-team All-America candidate and has the numbers to support it. Jackson is now just one of four players in Pac-10 history with career numbers of at least 1,500 points, 600 rebounds and 300 assists. The others: Sean Elliott (Arizona), Todd Lichti (Stanford) and Toby Bailey (UCLA).

    Jackson is averaging 22.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

    "Those numbers aren't by design," Ducks coach Ernie Kent said. "He is just a great player. He has had an amazing career for us and is topping it off with a very consistent and impressive senior season. His game allows him to have those kinds of stats. It is pretty remarkable what he has been able to do. That's not because we always look to go to him, but it's because of the versatile player he is."

  • There are some nervous whispers around Mountain West teams and they have to do with what all this parity might mean for multiple NCAA bids.

    Air Force is out front at 4-0, but then you have seven teams bunched with either two or three losses. Worse yet, preseason favorite BYU is already 2-3 in conference and plays at Utah (3-2) on Saturday.

    The league that has earned three NCAA bids each of the last two seasons (thanks to upset conference tournament winners San Diego State in 2002 and Colorado State in '03) has remained between 7-8 in conference RPI all season.

    But if the Falcons (picked eighth in preseason polls) continue their torrid pace and actually claim the league title, what would that mean for the at-large hopes of others? Could, say, a 9-5 regular-season champion gain an at-large bid if it doesn't win the conference tournament?

    How crazy is this league right now?

    SDSU has a senior guard named Ben Wardrop. In road losses against CSU and Wyoming this past week, he was whistled for seven fouls in two minutes.

    And we haven't even mentioned BYU senior Mark Bigelow getting slapped with a technical for running onto the court in Albuquerque on Monday night when there were still 3.8 seconds remaining on the clock of a tie game.

    You can't even make stuff like this up.

    Quote to Note

    "It's very tough. Everyone is shooting for you. They're like a machine now, but it's tough to get up for every game when you're at the top. It's not going to be easy. I don't follow them that closely, but in seeing them (last week), they play hard and well together. They have a chance to do it."
    -- USC coach Henry Bibby when asked if No. 2 Stanford can finish the season undefeated. Bibby played on the 1972 UCLA team that went 30-0.

    Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.

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