Air Force was not expected to be the worst team in the Mountain West this season. That honor was bestowed upon San Jose State, a team making their debut in the conference while coming off of a 9-20 season as a member of the WAC.
But the Falcons were still picked 10th in a league of 11 teams, and rightfully so. They went 8-8 in league play last year and returned around 20% of their scoring. Most notably, starting point guard Todd Flethcer and all-MWC scoring guard Michael Lyons both graduated. What was left for head coach Dave Pilipovich was a group of last season’s role players, with holes in the lineup getting filled with freshmen.
To make matters worse, three key members of the Air Force rotation missed time early in the season. Starting forward Justin Hammonds took a leave of absence from the team to work on his academics and sat out two games already this year while leading rebounder Kamryn Williams and DeLovell Earls both missed extended periods of time to start the season.
And, ironically enough, that may be the biggest reason that the Falcons have started the MWC season 2-0 with wins over Utah State and at UNLV.
That sounds convoluted, but it’s quite simple, really.
“Because [our veterans] didn’t play early, we had other players that we hard to play,” head coach Dave Pilipovich told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “That meant more minutes for Tre Coggins, Max Yon, Marik Olesinski. Some guys off the bench. That’s given them some experience heading into conference play.”
“Now those guys have come back and have given us more leadership on the floor. But you can’t substitute for experience.”
Coggins has made the most of his opportunity, turning himself into arguably the most improved player in the league. As a freshman playing behind Fletcher, the 6-foot-2 Coggins averaged just 2.4 points in a little more than 10 minutes per game. This season, he’s playing nearly 35 minutes a night and scoring 16.7 points while shooting 43.2% from beyond the arc.
Not even the coaching staff saw that coming.
“We knew he had a chance to be a lead guard for us and have some success, but to the point he’s having it? No. His scoring ability has surprised us,” Pilipovich said, crediting the experience of learning from Fletcher as a freshman and witnessing Lyons’ work habits first-hand. “In the preseason, we threw the ball to him in the first practice and said, ‘this is your team now.'”
And while Coggins has taken advantage of the opportunity, he hasn’t been alone.
Both Yon and Olesinski have seen their scoring jump by more than 10 points-per-game while combining to hit 40 threes on the season, shooting better than 38% from beyond the arc. With those three playing well, the return of Hammonds, Williams and Earls could not have come at a more perfect time.
That’s a huge part of the reason for this 2-0 in league play, but there’s more at play.
You see, Air Force runs a Princeton-style offense. That makes them one of the toughest teams in the conference to prepare. You can watch it on film and you can practice against your second team running through the sets, but until you’ve seen it in person, it’s difficult to truly understand just how hard it is to guard a team running the Princeton.
The game against Utah State was the first for the Aggie’s as a member of the MWC. UNLV, as talented as they are, has a roster full of new additions. That, according to Pilipovich, played as much of a role in the wins as AFA’s effort and execution did.
“We can catch people off guard,” he said.
And not just opposing teams. Air Force picked off a couple of the MWC’s big boys last season, but a 1-7 performance in league games on the road cost them dearly. The Falcons are already 1-0 on the year away from Clune Arena, picking up that win at the Thomas & Mack Center, only the second time AFA has done that is 22 years.
Said Pilipovich with a laugh, “they’re young enough that they don’t know better.”