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Air Force Season Recap: Falcons’ Grit Not Enough This Time Around

Air Force gave it everything they had, but it wasn’t enough on most occasions.

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Back in December of 2015, CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish penned an article, referring to Dave Pilipovich’s job as the head basketball coach at Air Force as the “toughest in all of college basketball”.

In a nutshell, Parrish couldn’t have been more accurate, as he outlined “medical disqualifications” and other barriers that were daily occurrences for Pilipovich and his staff, but would seemingly be foreign to any other Division I coach. Parrish was simply explaining all the roadblocks that Pilipovich must go through in trying to land prospective student-athletes, which dealt with just about everything from an academy height restriction on players (a rule that effects basketball more commonly than any other sport) to serious academic and lifestyle requirements.

And yet still, years later, Dave Pilipovich marches on as the leader of the Falcons program.

To understand the expectations around the Air Force program, is to comprehend the challenges that the Falcons face compared to the rest of the Mountain West Conference.

While other high-academic institutions like Harvard and Yale deal with similar issues of academic prowess in recruits, their league competes on an almost-level playing field, where each institution in the Ivy League requires brutal academic admission requirements and doesn’t allow athletic scholarships.

For other service academies, like at Army and Navy, the conferences and leagues in which they choose to compete are structured around schools with similar points of emphasis.

It’s these kinds of factors that better explain why the head coaching job at Air Force might just be the “toughest in all of college basketball” and why the success of the Falcons program cannot simply be measured in wins-and-losses.

NCAA Basketball: Air Force at Wyoming
Sophomore Lavelle Scottie was Air Force’s leading scorer during the 2017-2018 campaign.
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

While off-the-court, Air Force is bestowed the title of one of the world’s finest universities, on-the-court, the imposing prowess of the Falcons is not as prevalent.

Through Pilipovich’s six full seasons (and short interim stint) at Air Force, the program has compiled an 83-113 overall record, as well as posting a 37-77 mark in Mountain West play. The Falcons have made just one post-season tournament (a trip to the second round of the 2013 CIT), in the only season where they finished above the .500 mark.

But no, Dave Pilipovich is not a coach who stands with his back against the wall, sweating it out to see if he’ll have a job come next week.

In fact, a 12-19 mark at Air Force is a somewhat understandable feat, considering all that Pilipovich has stacked against him.

What really tells the tale for Air Force, is their ability to compete on a nightly basis and impose their slower-paced style on their opponents. After a blow-out loss to start league play on the road at New Mexico (and three more consecutive defeats after that), the Falcons finished their stretch of Mountain West play with a 6-8 mark, that included victories over the aforementioned Lobos and Utah State.

Prior to that, Air Force also started their overall campaign with a 3-0 mark, where they knocked off Texas State, Canisius and Arkansas Pine-Bluff.

However, it’s the losing that’s become synonymous with this Falcons group.

NCAA Basketball: Fresno State at Air Force
Dave Pilipovich is hoping his team jumps over the .500 mark next season.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

While a tough and scrappy team on the floor, Air Force’s lack of scoring ability (68.5 PPG - 293rd nationally) and size disadvantage on the glass (32.7 RPG - 309th nationally) remain two of their biggest issues in making an upward trend in the league picture. How are the Falcons supposed to compete with the highly-coveted prospects that litter the rest of Mountain West rosters? How is a sub 6’ 7” front-court supposed to deal with a towering talent like UNLV’s Brandon McCoy?

The answers to those questions may remain a mystery, as in the short-term, the trajectory of the Falcons’ program seems to be at a stalemate.

Sure, Air Force will return leading scorer Lavelle Scottie (12.2 PPG) to the mix, but the Falcons will have to replace two key guards in Trevor Lyons (9.4 PPG) and Jacob Van (5.2 PPG) with another completely unknown recruiting haul. Instead, Pilipovich and his staff will need to get more out of players like Ryan Swan (9.2 PPG) and Pervis Louder (6.3 PPG), the latter of whom’s 2017-2018 season was cut short due to injury.

So where does Air Force go from here exactly is now the question? Is the combo of Scottie and Swan enough to get the Falcons going next season and become a threat to rise out of the conference basement? Or will next season be another year of hard-fought losses and gritty victories that have defined the course of the Falcons over the past few years?

Or should the Falcons instead focus just simply be put on the off-season, where it’ll be another summer of “wait and see” as Dave Pilipovich deals with the numerous barriers in his way, as he tries to bring an influx of talent to the Air Force program?

The latter seems to be the more likely of scenarios.