While limited, Air Force stays grounded
Scan the men’s basketball roster at the Air Force Academy, and only on a rare occasion will you see a player over 6-8.
In this day and age, it’s tough to compete in a conference like the Mountain West if you don’t have a couple of big bangers.
Part of the issue is if you want to be a pilot you have to be able to fit in the cockpit of a plane, and if you’re 6-10 or 6-11, you can’t.
Also, you have to be willing to give a minimum five-year commitment once you graduate, and you have to be willing to deal with the stringent academy lifestyle going in.
And, you don’t have the players as often as you would at a non-military school. Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich gets the players from 2 to 6 p.m. everyday, and in that time slot they practice, watch film and work in the weightroom. Every second is valuable.
This year’s Air Force team has three players 6-7 or better, but most are between 6-3 and 6-6. Quite simply, there’s only so much you can do without height.
“You know coming you aren’t going to have much size,” Pilipovich said at the recent Mountain West Media Day event in Las Vegas. “If there are good 6-9 or 6-10 kids they are going to go to a traditional (non-military) school.”
That being said, the lack of height forces the Falcons to play an outside-in type of game with a lot of movement.
“The basic is a Princeton type offense, a lot of cutting without the ball; a lot of movement,” Pilipovich said. “Our guys have to be able to play every position on the floor. If we get to the basket, it’s going to be off a backdoor or drive.”
“Our guys have to be able to play every position on the floor,” returning forward Hayden Graham said.
Or hit a 3-point shot. The Falcons, who were 14-18 overall a year ago and 5-13 in conference, hit a respectable 34 percent from long distance, and two of their better long-range shooters, the 6-5 Graham (13.8 ppg, 6.3 rebounds) and 6-3 Zach Kocur (9.6, 5.4) are back. Graham shot 38.5 from beyond the arc, while Kocur was at 36 percent. C.J. Siples leads the returners at 47 percent.
“Hayden was one of our best offensive players last year,” Pilipovich said. “He can play anywhere on the floor, and we even used him as a ‘5’ once in a while. He is probably our most athletic player.
“Zach is one of our toughest players and one of our best perimeter shooters. Hayden had some other offers (Naval Academy and Denver). Zach didn’t have any offers. He’s decided he wants to be a pilot, and he’s already flown solo.”
Graham averaged 36 minutes a game, which is really too much, and Pilipovich knows that.
“It’s a lot of minutes,” Graham said. “I’m used to it. As a player, you don’t want to sit. As long as I can go, I want to be out there.”
“I’d like to limit him to maybe 30 minutes a game,” the Air Force coach said. “We have a little more depth and experience this year.”
Air Force does return nine of its top 11 scorers from last year and 15 total. Besides Graham and Kocur, Siples (6.5 average) is also back.
Graham said he’s been working on all facets of his game, and he’s expected to lead the team again.