Air Force’s 2-0 start in the Mountain West, and why you need to know Tre Coggins

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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.”

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.