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Air Force players are ‘wired differently’ than most

Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich gestures during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The picture hanging in the hallway outside coach Dave Pilipovich’s office at the U.S. Air Force Academy tells the story better than he ever could.

At the Academy, things are just different.

And while college basketball, or any sport for that matter, is a vital part of the life of a cadet, it is far from the priority.

As such, Pilipovich, and fans of the Falcons men’s basketball team must hope to catch lightning in a bottle every now and then for the types of great basketball moments fans of other programs seem to expect annually.

On March 9, 2013, with a senior-heavy roster of great shooters – much like the one the Falcons (8-8, 2-2 Mountain West) bring to Dreamstyle Arena on Saturday at 4 p.m. for a Salute to Service game against the UNM Lobos (14-3, 3-1) – Air Force had one of those moments, ironically against the Lobos.

LISTEN: Episode 25 of the Talking Grammer podcast is a conversations with Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich. LISTEN HERE.

In the final regular-season game coached by Steve Alford at UNM, the No. 12 Lobos lost to the Falcons when Air Force senior guard Todd Fletcher drained a 3-pointer with 3.5 seconds left for an improbable 89-88 win in front of an over-capacity Clune Arena crowd of 6,117 (the arena’s capacity is listed as 5,858).

“In that picture, it’s a floor shot of us playing defense,” Pilipovich said. “And in there you’ve got Hugh Greenwood, who went on to play professional sports in Australia. (Tony) Snell is in there, who’s still playing the NBA. You’ve got Alex Kirk, who played in the NBA. (Kendall) Williams (former Mountain West Player of the Year) is there. … And (Cameron) Bairstow, who played in the NBA.”

Pilipovich’s son once asked him, “‘Dad. They have five pros on the floor. You have five Air Force guys and you beat them. How’d that happen?'”

Pilipovich, the eighth-year head coach of the Falcons and easily considered around the Mountain West and college basketball as one of the most likable guys in the profession, is still trying to figure it out.

When you coach at Air Force, you don’t have summers with your players. You don’t have athletic scholarships. You don’t have early-morning practices or late night ones. You have a window from 2-6 p.m. most days to practice when there aren’t other obligations at the Academy.

And Pilipovich loves every minute of it because, as he says, he’s surrounded by some of the most impressive people he’s ever met, who just happen to play basketball for him.

“The quality of the kids we have, they’re really good,” Pilipovich said. “They’re really smart just to get in here. I could never get in here. They are so smart. The classes they take. The discipline. The 6 a.m. wakeup calls. The uniform of the day. The marching to lunch. …

“They’re always reading something – a new book or a novel or something. They’re wired differently.”

Some of his coaching peers brag on their recruiting wins and NBA Draft picks. Pilipovich brags about calls like the one he had a few weeks ago with former shooting guard Zach Kocur, who hit what was essentially the game-winning layup to beat the Lobos at the Academy in 2016 while defended by former UNM guard Elijah Brown.

“If those two ever play one-on-one 10 times, Elijah wins 11, you know? But he beat him on that layup,” Pilipovich said. “Zach, now, I talked to him a few weeks ago, he’s flying a billion dollar plane. He’s a pilot. He’s a fighter pilot. He’s put in charge of this machine that’s unbelievable and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. Look at what these guys are doing’.”

His current group of players are doing some pretty big things on the court, too.

Air Force is No. 3 in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage, has the highest-rated offensive efficiency in the MWC and is coming off a dominant 79-60 home win over preseason MWC favorite Utah State.

Once this game is over, New Mexico coach Paul Weir says he is a big fan of Pilipovich and the Falcons.

“Needless to say, I cheer for him immensely,” Weir said. “I’m happy to see their team doing well.”

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