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MWC hoops preview: Air Force hopes athleticism helps close gap

Editor’s note: This is the second in an 11-part series previewing UNM men’s basketball opponents for the coming season. The series is running in reverse of the preseason Mountain West media poll and concludes with a nonconference schedule preview. To see all of the capsules and previews, CLICK HERE.

It was sometime after midnight on the early morning of Jan. 20 when Dave Pilipovich had to call former Fresno State coach Rodney Terry at his hotel room in Colorado Springs.At the direction of his bosses — the United States government — Pilipovich had to explain to the Bulldogs head coach that, despite their having already flown to Denver and bused down to the Springs for a Mountain West game at the Air Force Academy, the government shutdown meant there was no game.

There were no practices. No training table for athletes. No open gym.

Oh, and gone, too, was the Falcons’ bit of momentum they had built over a solid two weeks of play prior to the shutdown.

For all the unique quirks — obstacles if you’re being more realistic about it — that fielding a team at the U.S. Air Force Academy brings, having to call an opposing coach to tell him there would be no game was a new one for Pilipovich.

“We’re like Army and Navy. We’re different,” said Pilipovich, whose team is picked 10th in a preseason Mountain West media poll. “Things that weren’t in place are in place now, but I thought it made us look really bad, at the time.”

Of course it didn’t take long for Pilipovich to try to use the situation to his advantage, even after the shutdown was over.

“The next Saturday, Boise (State) came in and I called Leon (Rice, the Broncos head coach) and told him we weren’t playing,” Pilipovich joked.

It didn’t work. Boise State showed up, and won, in Clune Arena. But the episode showed two things: Things are, in fact, different for the Falcons than other MWC teams and Pilipovich rolls with the punches admirably.

The Falcons have 12 returning players off last year’s team that finished ninth and boasted a home win over the UNM Lobos on Feb. 10.

The team’s experience includes a potential top-10 player in the league in Lavelle Scottie, a 6-foot-6 junior forward. Fellow junior Ryan Swan, a 6-7 wing, can give teams fits, too. The duo combined for more than 21 points per game last season. Guard Caleb Morris, a 6-4 junior, also came on strong at the end of last season.

“We’re more athletic than we’ve been in the past,” Pilipovich said. “We’re more interchangeable. We can switch (defensively) one through five because of the athletic ability and size. We don’t have a 6-11, or 7-footer. We’re in that 6-3 to 6-7 mode, and I think that’s going to be to our advantage.”

As for the old familiar Princeton concepts on offense, they won’t be as noticeable anymore.

“More cutting and screening,” Pilipovich said. “In the Princeton, you don’t set a lot of screens.”

Air Force Falcons

2017-18: 12-19 (6-12 Mountain West, 9th)
2018-19 preseason poll: 10th
Head coach: Dave Pilipovich (84-113, 7th season at Air Force and overall)
Starters*/letterwinners returning: 2/12
vs. UNM: Jan. 2 U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. (UNM and Air Force only play once due to the MWC’s unbalanced schedule)
* started at least 50 percent of 2017-18 games

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