SAN DIEGO - One week ago, as Air Force basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik stood inside the coaches’ box during the Mountain West Conference Tournament at Pepsi Center, he saw something unusual. For 29 games, Bzdelik had urged his players to “bring it,” and for 29 games they had. But when they reached back Thursday for their “it” — their drive, their energy and their passion to win that carried them to a school-record 24 victories — it simply wasn’t there. The Falcons were flat. Flat didn’t cut it against Wyoming that day, and it certainly won’t cut it at 5:25 p.m. today. The 13thseeded Falcons have come here to face fourthseeded Illinois in the NCAA Tournament. But their visit to the biggest stage in college basketball will be brief if they can’t rediscover the scrappiness that made them special for most of this season. “I think Illinois wants it real bad. I think every team in the field wants it real bad,” Bzdelik said. “That’s what makes it a very special tournament. Every team’s going to play with a lot of passion and heart and hopefully we can couple that with playing well and playing with the desperate energy that’s got us to this point.” It would be shocking for the Falcons not to play with their customary desperation. After all, this is the NCAA Tournament, where Air Force has been just three times before in the academy’s 50 years. Beyond that, the Falcons constantly have heard that their 24-6 record didn’t merit an invitation to the tournament. The barrage of insults could be Air Force’s biggest advantage. “As coach says, the most dangerous animal in the forest is a wounded one,” senior guard Antoine Hood said. “Everyone’s been stabbing us repeatedly, so I’d say we’re very dangerous right now.” Though there are plenty of theories for why Air Force wasn’t sharp in the conference tournament, Bzdelik said he believes his team was hurt by playing just two games in 12 days before facing Wyoming. Bzdelik has learned in his first season that his players respond better the harder they’re pushed physically, even when they seem tired. If Bzdelik let up too much during the week before the MWC tournament, he certainly didn’t this week. “The daily cadet life is interesting . . . sometimes when you allow them to have a day off, so to speak, they get sluggish,” Bzdelik said. “I thought perhaps I was a little soft on them, trying to allow them to get some rest. Hopefully, I learned my lesson. We’ve had some very hard, difficult practices.” Another theory is that Wyoming’s size intimidates Air Force, leading to the following question: If Wyoming can intimidate the Falcons, what will they be feeling when they step on the court today with Illinois players who are big and made last year’s Final Four? Air Force players were amused at the suggestion that they would be intimidated playing the Fighting Illini. “Even if we were some Division II team, you can’t go out there and be scared to play,” junior forward Jacob Burtschi said. “What are you playing basketball for if you’re scared?” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or email@example.com NCAA ON TV NCAA MEN ON CBS TODAY 10:25 a.m. Oklahoma vs. Wisconsin 1 p.m. Nevada vs. Montana 5:25 p.m. Illinois vs. Air Force (HD) 7:40 p.m. Indiana vs. San Diego State FRIDAY 10:30 a.m. Arizona vs. Wisconsin 12:35 p.m. Georgetown vs. Northern Iowa 5:20 p.m. California vs. North Carolina State 7:30 p.m. Kansas vs. Bradley
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