When the season began six weeks ago, expectations for the Air Force men’s basketball team were uncertain at best and in most cases so modest that the thought of contending for a Mountain West Conference title was laughable.
One prominent college basketball analyst summarized the national sentiment when he predicted that Air Force, without the services of two-time All-MWC center Nick Welch this season because of injury, would be lucky to win half of its games. But after closing the first segment of their season Saturday with a 77-42 victory over Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, the Falcons have made those prognostications seem foolish. In front of 3,468 fans at Clune Arena, Air Force won its 10th game in a row and heads into the conference season Thursday with the school’s best nonconference record at 12-1. “No one really expected that from us,” junior forward Jacob Burtschi said. “But what mat- ters is the conference. We have to put it behind us because now we start 0-0.” Based on Saturday’s victory, the Falcons’ form heading into conference play hardly could be better. After shooting 29.5 percent in Wednesday’s 54-46 win over Georgia Tech, the Falcons righted themselves by making 27 of 47 field goals attempts, including 10 of 22 from 3-point range. For the second straight game, the Falcons committed just six turnovers, and their defense limited IPFW to 32.7 percent shooting. Despite resting junior guard Matt McCraw because of a minor ankle injury, Air Force never trailed, breaking an early 9-9 tie with a 10-1 run and building a big enough second-half lead to rest its starters for the final 10 minutes. “That was a good thing,” coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “Heading into conference, we’re going to need depth and we’re going to need people contributing off the bench.” Though Air Force received good minutes off the bench from three freshmen, led by Andrew Henke’s eight points, Saturday was undoubtedly a confidence builder for the Falcons’ typical catalysts. Burtschi scored 18 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds, forward Dan Nwaelele scored 18 on 5-of-7 shooting and center John Frye scored on consecutive possessions in the first half to put Air Force up 30-19. Bzdelik’s only disappointment was that his defense relaxed in the final minutes of the first half, and Air Force’s lead slipped to 35-27, prompting the coach to rip off his jacket in anger as he headed to the locker room. But one of the Falcons’ trends has been quick secondhalf starts, and they followed the pattern with a 20-4 run out of the break to put away the game. After making 6 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, IPFW (2-11) made just 6 of 25 field goals in the second. “I think we’ve been ready” for conference play, guard Tim Anderson said. “Whatever team we play, doesn’t matter nonconference, conference, the No. 1 team in the country or the (worst) team in the country, we just go out and respect the game, play our best and play our game.” NEXT Mountain West Conference opener, Brigham Young (7-3) at Air Force (12-1), 9 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2, 740/560 AM