Team preview: Air Force
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006-07 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)COACH AND PROGRAM
Air Force endured a quarter century of basketball without a winning season before taking the Mountain West Conference by storm in 2004. The former automatic road win for the rest of the league has compiled a three-year 64-26 record and two NCAA appearances under three different coaches.
The revival began with Joe Scott, whose team was one of the biggest stories in college basketball when it won the Mountain West crown in 2004. Even after Scott departed for Princeton, his alma mater, the Falcons have since proven they weren't a one-year wonder, following up with a tie for third place under the direction of Scott's former assistant Chris Mooney and last year's tie for second under Jeff Bzdelik, who was hired when Mooney took over at Richmond.
For all the turnover in coaching, the lineup is stable and Air Force returns four starters from last season in addition to senior Nick Welch, the 2004 MWC Co-Player of the Year, who took a rare Air Force medical red-shirt last season.
The group returns to extend a home court winning streak of 17 games, tied with Iowa for fourth best in Division I. Although it took Scott four years to implement the system, the Princeton offense is here to stay for AFA. While other schools in the league have been able to defend Air Force's football wishbone out of familiarity, basketball remains problematic because of the Falcons' execution and superb defense.
The Falcons have led Division I in scoring defense four straight years, including the last losing season (12-16) in 2003. Every night Air Force simply frustrates opponents by denying them the ball.
That success is obviously no coincidence, because it works elsewhere. Last year Princeton was second nationally in defense and Richmond eighth.
The offense didn't die out when Mooney took it with him to Virginia. Bzdelik, the former Denver Nuggets coach, retained the essence of the deliberate Princeton attack while picking up the tempo somewhat. Despite learning his own roster along with the venues and personnel of an entire league, it seemed as if Bzdelik had been coaching the Falcons for years.
If it struck some at first as an odd pairing from the money- and ego-driven pro ranks to the selfless team concept of Air Force basketball, it turned out to be the perfect fit.
Win or lose, Bzdelik often said he never enjoyed a year of coaching as much as he did in Colorado Springs last season. "We had a collective group of players dedicated to improving their game individual and collectively," Bzdelik said. "They were concerned more for team success than individual success. What more can a coach ask for?"
With Bzdelik, it's read between the lines. No one will ever hear an NBA indictment out of him and many suspect he may indeed return to the pros when his children finish high school. He had as civil a parting from the Nuggets as possible and with a management change, was invited this spring to interview for an assistant job.
"I am flattered that the Denver Nuggets would have an interest in me,'' he said. "However, I am totally committed to my present job at the Air Force Academy and very excited about our future. It would be an honor to work for [coach] George Karl and [team owner] Stan Kroenke, but my focus right now is on the Air Force basketball program."
Had he left, it would have been four coaches in as many years for the Falcons' senior-dominated club.
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