With team play and a tuned-up offense, former Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik has No. 24 Air Force soaring to new heights
LAST MAY, not long after he led Air Force to its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in school history, Falcons coach Jeff Bzdelik took a spin in an F-16 with a major from Buckley Air Force base in Denver. "I rolled [the plane] a couple of times," says Bzdelik. "I didn't get sick, but I did turn a little green around the gills."
Air Force has been flying smoothly since Bzdelik began piloting the program in the spring of 2005. After 15 years in the NBA, including two-plus as coach of the Denver Nuggets, the former Army National Guardsman became the Falcons' third coach in as many seasons when he replaced Chris Mooney, who had bolted for Richmond after a year in Colorado Springs. (Joe Scott left for Princeton in 2004 after leading Air Force to its first Big Dance since 1962.)
Bzdelik, 54, is in no hurry to chart a similar course. After the Falcons went 24--7 last season, racking up the school's highest win total ever, Bzdelik rebuffed the Nuggets' attempts to lure him back to the pros as an assistant. With Air Force (11--1 through Sunday) ranked (at No. 24) in the AP poll for just the second time in program history, things are looking even more promising this year. The Falcons have won by an average of nearly 25 points per game and have blown out Stanford (by 34), Colorado (by 38) and Wake Forest (by 36). Their lone loss was on Nov. 20 to then No. 9 Duke on a neutral court in Kansas City.
None of those games were at cozy Clune Arena, where Air Force has won 46 of its last 47. After the Falcons made the NCAA tournament last season as a controversial 13th seed—despite protests that their strength of schedule (rated 158th) was too low—and lost to Illinois 78--69 in the first round, Bzdelik's staff put out feelers to 150 teams, looking to add a high-caliber home game this year. "We wanted to improve our schedule strength," he says. No one accepted. "If they won't come to Clune," he says, "we'll try and find them."
It's easy to see why opponents would be wary of facing Bzdelik's team. Air Force has bolstered its strength with the return of senior center Nick Welch, the 2003--04 Mountain West co--player of the year, who missed last season with injuries to his knee, ankle and foot. The Falcons now start four seniors and a junior, all of whom average in double figures in points. Adhering to the Academy's code of "service before self," Air Force plays with an unselfishness at both ends of the floor that is, as Bzdelik notes, "a huge part of the environment [here] before they even step onto the court." In their 70--47 rout of Norfolk State on Dec. 13, the Falcons had 24 assists on 26 field goals.
That efficiency is due in part to Bzdelik's insistence that his players excel at the fundamentals and also to the tweaks he made to the Princeton offense he inherited from Scott and Mooney. Bzdelik retained the essence of the deliberate attack, but in his version the Falcons are free to launch open three-pointers. "He tells us to stay within the Princeton framework but just run it [more quickly]," says senior forward Jacob Burtschi. "In the past, if you were wide open but there were 27 seconds left on the shot clock, that was considered a bad shot. Coach Bzdelik will get mad if we're open and don't shoot it."
They can also pick up the tempo if a fast-break opportunity presents itself. Air Force might not be playing at supersonic speed, but it is moving away from its Wright brothers--like pace of recent years. The Falcons' tempo has increased to 60.1 possessions per game (up from 55.5 two seasons ago), while their offensive efficiency (126.6 points per 100 possessions) is the best in the nation. Their overall scoring is up as well. By hitting 54% from the field, including 45% on three-pointers, Air Force has already topped 80 points four times, something it did only once last year. "We feel more at ease out there," says Burtschi. "This is a lot more fun."
Fun isn't often a priority at a place where each day begins with mandatory 6 a.m. breakfast, coursework includes classes like aerospace engineering and post-graduation plans can include a tour of duty in Iraq, where former forward and 2004 Academy graduate Joel Gerlach is currently helping rebuild Baghdad. "It's in the back of your head," says Burtschi, "that it could be us [next] over there."