Every now and then, Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik has pondered what his team might have been like this season had senior center Nick Welch been healthy.
“The other day we were talking, a discussion of what could have been,” Bzdelik said. “In the spirit of motivating Nick, I said, ‘Yeah, maybe we’d be 17-13.’” Though Bzdelik was joking, it would be hard to argue that Air Force could have done much better this season than 24-5 — with or without Welch — heading into Thursday’s Mountain West Conference Tournament quarterfinal against Wyoming at Denver’s Pepsi Center. And that’s perhaps Air Force’s biggest accomplishment this season, considering the Falcons had a built-in excuse to struggle this season after they learned last September that Welch, the MWC’s Player of the Year in 2004, had to sit out because of left leg injuries and hope for a return in 2006-07. “He called a meeting, and he told us he wasn’t going to play and from that moment on, everybody tried to work on their game a little harder,” junior forward Dan Nwaelele said. “It’s paid off because we were able to overcome that kind of adversity.” Welch’s replacement, junior center John Frye, has been a huge factor in several key victories — a scenario that wouldn’t have been likely if Welch were healthy, considering the 6-foot-10 Frye played 29 minutes the first two seasons. Had Frye not scored 18 points against Georgia Tech on Dec. 28, Air Force probably wouldn’t have escaped with a 54-46 victory. Same could be said for Frye’s 17 points, including 3-for-5 shooting from 3-point range, in a 52-51 victory at Utah. Frye also scored 26 against Navy. “Opportunity presented itself and Frye stepped in,” senior guard Antoine Hood said. “When opportunity knocks, if you don’t answer the door, no one will ever know. A lot of people are hungry and John’s been hungry for a while.” A key moment came in Air Force’s first game, a 62-49 victory against Northern Arizona in which Frye made two 3-pointers in the second half. Bzdelik said he “sensed a total uplift” on the bench when Frye made the shots. Right away, the Falcons knew they’d be OK without Welch. “When we started our preseason workouts, everyone was getting better every day and the chemistry was unbelievable. So I felt we’d be all right,” Frye said. “But once I hit those couple shots, I felt like I was really part of the team and could step into Nick’s role and help the team out like he did. “I definitely bring different aspects than Nick does and that’s kind of helped us in some ways and hurt us in other ways. We’ve learned to play with me as a center and we’ll learn to play when he comes back next year.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or email@example.com NEXT Mountain West Conference Tournament, first round, Air Force (24-5, 12-4) vs. Wyoming (12-17, 5-11) at Denver, 7 p.m. Thursday, Adelphia 6/UHF 51, 740/560AM