At first, some considered it a fluke. And then another winning season came, and the doubters again claimed the good times for the Air Force men’s basketball program wouldn’t last.
Air Force’s success seemed so fragile, some said, that it would crumble under the weight of a third coach in three years and the loss of center Nick Welch to injuries. But now, the only thing crumbling are stereotypes and a history of losing that, after two NCAA Tournament berths in the past three years, seems long ago. In fact, when the Falcons return to the court in November, Welch will be the only player who has experienced a losing season. And that means the 2006-07 Falcons will not simply be expected to return to the NCAA Tournament but for the first time have a good chance of advancing. “We can, definitely,” junior forward Dan Nwaelele said. “We have Nick coming back and just about everybody else. Everybody just needs to get better.” The Falcons’ remarkable ride through 2005-06 ended Thursday when they lost 78-69 to Illinois in a first-round NCAA Tournament game they never were expected to win. Though losing was a disappointment, Air Force probably got the most it could have out of its season — a 24-7 record, second place in the Mountain West Conference, two victories over Atlantic Coast Conference teams and the fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history. All of that with first-year coach Jeff Bzdelik on the sidelines and Welch in the stands. “You can’t be satisfied with losing a game in the NCAA Tournament,” junior center John Frye said. “But you can be satisfied with this season.” Still, more is expected next year. Though the losses of reserve forward Marc Holum and first-team All-Conference guard Antoine Hood will be significant, few programs in the country will be able to return as much experience and have a senior of Welch’s ability dropped into the lineup. Air Force likely will start at least four seniors next year, a nucleus that includes Welch, Nwaelele, forward Jacob Burtschi and guard Matt McCraw. All four have earned All-Mountain West Conference honors at some point in their careers. But the league also promises to be much tougher next year, with champion San Diego State possibly returning its starting five, Brigham Young losing just one starter, New Mexico welcoming big-time transfers Aaron Johnson and J.R. Giddens and Utah improving with its young nucleus and center Luke Nevill. Wyoming loses Air Forcekiller Justin Williams, but the Cowboys had a young team in 2006. UNLV loses center Louis Amundson but has most of its team back and Colorado State returns its top players. Air Force likely will need to do the following to get back to the NCAA Tournament next season: c Use its size: If Welch starts at center, Frye likely would move to the bench, giving Bzdelik the option to play both at the same time. Frye had a solid season, averaging six points, but his offseason focus will be adding at least 15-20 pounds to his 6-foot-10, 215-pound frame. Bzdelik installed some postup concepts into Air Force’s offense this year, and look for that to continue when the Falcons have more size and experience with Bzdelik’s philosophies. c Build depth: Bzdelik didn’t completely trust his bench this year because of the inexperience of some younger players, and though Air Force’s starters held up remarkably well physically, it was clear in several of Air Force’s losses the lack of bench scoring hurt. Air Force’s best substitute, sophomore guard Tim Anderson, likely will replace Hood in the starting lineup if he continues to improve at the rate he did this year. Freshman Andrew Henke also showed potential and could be a big-time scorer in the future. Regardless of who starts, the Falcons will have at least one solid guard coming off the bench. After a summer of working on his offensive skills, freshman Anwar Johnson will be ready for more playing time. Sophomore forward Keith Maren had some health setbacks, but early in the season he appeared ready to be a significant contributor. Maren has good size at 6-8, 235, and shoots well from the 3-point line. Both Maren and 6-7 sophomore Eric Kenzik played in meaningful situations and will be counted on next season. c Continue to improve defense and rebounding: Bzdelik promised to lower Air Force’s field-goal percentage defense and he did, to 42.5 percent from 47.7 percent the year before. That’s a direct reflection on how good a defensive coach Bzdelik is, and another year of his tutelage should help the Falcons continue improving in that area. Still, there are no guarantees that the 2006-07 team will be Air Force’s best. Bzdelik probably put it best when asked about his team’s prospects. “We’ll see.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or firstname.lastname@example.org