Michael Lyons

Air Force moves into 2nd place in MWC by beating No. 22 San Diego State

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Michael Lyons finished with 20 points, five boards and four assists and Todd Fletcher chipped in with 13 points and five assists as Air Force held serve on their home floor, knocking off No. 22 San Diego State 70-67.

The win was just the third time in 81 tries that Air Force has beaten a ranked opponent. The last time? Last season, when they also beat the Aztecs at home.

More importantly, however, Air Force moves to 5-2 in the rugged Mountain West Conference after winning their fifth straight game, putting them all alone into second place for the time being. Who saw that coming three weeks ago? It may be a short-lived tenure near the top of the league standings, however, as the Falcons have a brutal stretch coming up — at New Mexico, at Nevada, Colorado State, UNLV, at Boise State and Wyoming, with a return trip to San Diego State and a second game against the Lobos to close out the conference season.

Those are eight games where the Falcons are susceptible to getting knocked off, but such is life in this league. And if Dave Pilipovich’s team has done anything during the past month, they’ve proven capable of competing in this conference.

You see, Air Force plays a difficult style to matchup with. Pilipovich runs a Princeton-esque system with his own wrinkles added, but the bottom line is that the Falcons shoot a lot of threes and throw a lot of backdoor passes. They like to get up and down the floor more than in year’s past as well, and if there’s anything that’s more difficult than defending a Princeton-style offense, it’s trying to do so when your defense doesn’t have a chance to get set.

This is a group that has to be taken seriously.

It may be too early to call them a legitimate contender — it’s not a stretch to say that their gaudy league record is partially a result of a friendly schedule thus far.

Air Force heads to Albuquerque on Wednesday with first place in the MWC on the line. The fact that’s actually a true statement is a testament to how far that program has come.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

rad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.