New Mexico-Air Force: One of the season's most interesting battles
In the locker-room concourse ringing the courtside level at Wyoming's Arena-Auditorium last Wednesday, Steve Alford and several of his New Mexico Lobos were quietly deconstructing their latest conquest. A few minutes earlier, they had closed out a taut, four-point win over the homestanding Cowboys, but the Lobos presented the business-as-usual air of a program that's won a lot of games in this hypercompetitive league over the last several years.
Discussing New Mexico's league credentials could win you a lot of bar bets. The Lobos have won at least a share of the Mountain West regular-season title in three of the past four seasons, and their success is perhaps only matched by the relative lack of respect they're shown each year in the league's preseason polls. The 2009 (co-champs) and 2010 title teams were both picked fifth in the preseason. This year, coming off another co-championship, they were tabbed third, but heading toward the halfway point, the Lobos once again are in first and are well positioned for a title run.
"You like [the role] of the underdog, but at this point, we just have to play with confidence in ourselves," junior forward Cameron Bairstow said. "Last year, we were picked to win it, and were able to live up to expectations. We always believe in ourselves, and that's what matters."
Three days later, a much fresher scene unfolded underneath Clune Arena's bleachers after Air Force edged San Diego State for just the program's third-ever win over a ranked opponent. The victory moved the team to a surprising 5-2 in the league, and the postgame press conference was a funny mix of self-deprecation and earnestness. When a reporter started things off by asking why the Falcons match up so well with the Aztecs, whom they also defeated at Clune Arena last season, the three players spent a full six seconds awkwardly looking at each other before senior guard Todd Fletcher turned and sheepishly replied, "Do we match up well?"
In related news, this is only the ninth season since Air Force first joined a basketball conference for the 1980-81 season that the Falcons have even won five conference games. The senior core of this team came after the brief run of success in the middle of last decade, so forgive them for not really handling this winning thing all that comfortably. It could be something this group will quickly grow into, though.
"Sometimes after practice, we may go back to the office and say, 'We're not this and we're not that.' No, we are. They're tough ... their character ... leadership. Wow. I wouldn't trade them in for anybody," Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich, in his first full year as head coach, said after the win. "That group in that locker room is something. The Academy has beaten three top-25 teams in its history, and that group has done it twice within a year."
Wednesday, the program that's used to a lack of respect for winning hosts the program surprised by the respect they're getting for winning, in one of the most unexpected first-place battles that will take place all season. For the now 6-1 Lobos, at home, this is a time for consolidation, for taking the advantage they have garnered through road wins at Boise State and Wyoming and pressing it by defending their home court. It's a game you would have penciled before the season as a win, and even with Air Force's surge, the Lobos are still a double-digit favorite in one of the nation's toughest venues.
For the Falcons, this is a great opportunity but it's also a bit of a free roll. They don't specifically need this win to make a legitimate run at an at-large bid. The bigger game in that sense may be the one this weekend, at Nevada, a team any at-large contender in this league likely will have to be able to handle on the road. Then again, the Falcons' entire season at this point is being bankrolled by house money. Air Force was picked to finish ninth in the preseason poll. Reminder: There are only nine teams in the Mountain West this season.
The Falcons are cleverly playing both sides of this coin. As much as the players attempted to use the no-pressure card in the San Diego State postgame because of their predicted league standing, in the next breath, they admitted the perceived slight also has served as season-long motivation.
"Yup, [the poll] is right on our door when we walk in," Fletcher said.
"Posted everywhere," senior guard Michael Lyons chimed in.
The Falcons won't need any extra motivation against New Mexico, but they will need to handle what could be a very difficult matchup for them. In the last two league games, New Mexico has favored a two-big lineup featuring both seven-footer Alex Kirk and 6-10 forward Cameron Bairstow, both of whom are comfortable in the post but also can face up from the high post or, in Kirk's case, spot up from the arc.
That high-low threat, combined with Air Force's inability to handle legitimate post scorers with size, could be a lethal way for New Mexico to attack the Falcons' matchup zone, but it comes with a potential cost. Air Force's version of the Princeton offense will see all five players pop up as perimeter threats, so at least one of the Lobos' bigs would be caught chasing crafty forward Mike Fitzgerald out by the arc, or the Lobos will have to lean on a zone against an offense where that can be a dangerous proposition and personnel mismatches can still be exposed.
The Lobos will also be seeing a Falcons team with growing confidence in its bench. Against San Diego State, Air Force got 57 minutes of playing time and 22 huge points from its non-starters. Marek Olesinski had a career high eight points spotting for de facto big man Taylor Broekhuis while Kamryn Williams had some big moments defensively and made two clutch late free throws. The improved depth provides Pilipovich with more options and has helped toughen up his experienced starters.
"We have a lot of experience, the starting five, but these guys just push us around," said Lyons, whose post-buzzer ball heave on Saturday banged out a couple panels on the Clune Arena scoreboard. "When we get to the game, we're more prepared. Sometimes, we're shocked it's not like practice. Practice is a lot harder than games, sometimes. Or it has been lately."
Last season, New Mexico won this home fixture by 30, but the two seasons before that, the Falcons fell in Albuquerque by a total of eight points. Air Force's five seniors were there for all of those games, so the atmosphere shouldn't take them by surprise. There's something to be said for "been there, done that," even if this team -- 10-36 in the league in the three seasons before this one -- has never really done much of anything before the last few weeks. In this battle of the humble vs. the humbled, Air Force has a chance to make a very big statement of intent. Just don't tell them they're not still the underdog.
"The next game is the next game and we know it's for first place and we know how great New Mexico is, but we're going to prepare like we always do," Fletcher said. "We were picked ninth in the league, so we have nothing to lose."