ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Falcons Have Shot At Tying UNM For First in the MWC
These aren’t your father’s Falcons.
Yes, Air Force is still running the Princeton offense. And yes, they’re still doing it with a roster of pretty much the same players from last year’s last-place team in the Mountain West.
But today’s 7 p.m. tip in the Pit between Air Force and No. 15 New Mexico isn’t just a placeholder in the Lobos’ schedule.
Air Force (14-6, 5-2 MWC), the team picked in preseason polls to finish last in the league, is coming off a 70-67 win over San Diego State, the team picked in the preseason to win the league. That means if the Falcons can upset UNM (19-3, 6-1) tonight, they start the second half of the league schedule Saturday with a share of first place.
“We thought we were better than the preseason prediction,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “But how good? We didn’t know. But our cadet athletes are believing. They’re playing with a little bit of a swagger. They’re excited about the momentum the program has.”
And why wouldn’t they be?
They’re having fun and scoring 11 points more per game this season (72.8) than last year when they were the lowest scoring team in the MWC (61.6).
Pilipovich, who took over the program with eight games to go in the 2011-12 season, said he watched game film of last season and saw too many rushed shots at the end of the shot clock because his team’s Princeton offense, traditionally a slow, deliberate scheme, was passing up too many good looks earlier.
That was then.
“This is a team that pushes the ball up the floor … so it’s not a 43-42 game that they expect to have,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “They can score the ball, and score it in a variety of ways and score it quickly.”
UNM coach Steve Alford knows that.
“We know we have an opponent that we respect greatly because I know these kids have been in this league a long time and I know what they’re capable of,” Alford said.
The Falcons are led by senior guard Michael Lyons, whose 18.1 points per game is No. 2 in the league. But the entire roster hits shots.
In conference games, Air Force leads the league in free-throw percentage (83.2), field-goal percentage (46.4), 3-point percentage (38.2) and 3-pointers per game (7.4).
But they do have a familiar weakness. They’re thin in the frontcourt, and when a team with size, such as UNM with 7-foot Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow, can impose their will in the paint, the Falcons have struggled.
Air Force lost 79-40 and was out-rebounded 40-19 when it played arguably the league’s most physical interior team in Colorado State on Jan. 16.
“When things go bad for us,” Pilipovich acknowledged, “it’s usually because of the lack of size – the strength, and usually the rebounding advantage, really will hurt us.”
Pilipovich joked: “It’s a good thing New Mexico is really small, right?”
The Lobos want to their offense to go through the post anyway, but tonight it takes on even more importance.
“We want to go inside,” Alford said. “That’s not a secret. Teams should know that we want to play inside out. We’re at our best when we can create problems at the basket that opens up things on the perimeter for us.”
While the Lobos are hopeful Kirk and Bairstow find plenty of success inside, Alford also welcomes the new up-tempo pace of the Falcons.
“I hope it is a track meet on Wednesday,” Alford said, adding he thinks his team is still at its best offensively when it gets out and runs after rebounds.
TICKET UPDATE:As of close of business Tuesday, there were 75 tickets remaining in the lower bowl of the Pit for tonight’s game and 125 club-level seats.
AGET’S VISIT:Alford said he enjoyed this past weekend’s visit by Sudanese 7-footer Obij Aget, who has already signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Lobos in 2013-14 and is living in Indiana rehabbing from a torn ACL.
When the injury occurred last summer, Aget decided not to enroll at UNM so as not to burn one year of eligibility while rehabbing his knee.
“It was great to see another 7-footer on campus,” Alford said of Aget’s visit during the Nevada game.
Asked whether Aget had been playing any basketball yet, Alford quickly responded.
“He better not be,” Alford said. “He’s been instructed not to.”
Alford said UNM hopes to get Aget on campus by June 1, and that all reports on his rehab progress have been positive.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal