Ella Ellis (Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE)
On most occasions in any sport, an interim head coach does not become the permanent head coach the following season. Dave Pilipovich was fortunate enough to be retained by athletic director Hans Mueh as Air Force's newest basketball coach. However, Pilipovich's fortune intersects with a companion reality: He earned the job. Now, a new era can begin in earnest in Colorado Springs.
A jolt of excitement flowed through Air Force's basketball program last February. The grind-it-out win over a flummoxed San Diego State team enabled Pilipovich to claim the scalp that ultimately granted him a full year as the leader of the Falcons. Players and fans have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the direction of this upcoming season. It will not produce a 25-win tally. It will not produce a top-three finish in the Mountain West Conference. It will not lead to an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. It will, however, offer the promise of genuine growth and development, which is what the Falcons did not receive from former coach Jeff Reynolds. Pilipovich's presence as the main man on the bench during game nights will lend a measure of freshness to this season, something the Air Force Academy has needed in the realm of roundball.
The path to improvement begins Saturday on day one of the All-Military Classic, a two-day event in Charleston, S.C., that unites four military programs. While the Virginia Military Institute faces The Citadel in one of two opening-day contests, Air Force plays Army in the other matchup, with the winners meeting in Sunday afternoon's championship game. Air Force could be in for a tough day should it face VMI on Sunday, but the Falcons should hold the clear upper hand on Saturday against the Black Knights.
Army went 12-18 in the 2011-2012 campaign, finishing 5-9 in the Patriot League's regular season race (plus a loss in the first round of the Patriot League Tournament). Of Army's five conference wins, only one came against a team that finished above the Black Knights in the standings. Army finished sixth in the eight-team Patriot League. It defeated fourth-place Holy Cross at home, but its other four wins came from season sweeps of seventh-place Colgate and eighth-place Navy. Of Army's 12 wins, the triumph over Holy Cross (9-5 in the Patriot) was clearly the best result. Head coach Zach Spiker has his work cut out for him as a new season begins.
Two things stand out in a quick survey of Army's 2011-2012 season: First, the Black Knights compiled large numbers of assists and turnovers. The Black Knights were second in the Patriot League and a respectable 118th in the nation (out of 345 teams, remember) in assists per game, with 13.4. However, Army was last in the Patriot League and 295th in the nation in turnovers per game, with 15 on the button.
The second detail that emerges from reams of statistics is that Army succeeded to the extent that it framed games around the three-point shot at both ends of the floor. Army shot the three-pointer with a reasonable amount of success (35.5 percent) while defending it even more effectively (opponents hit 34.6 percent of threes against the Black Knights). Army's defense allowed opponents to hit 51.5 percent of two-point shots, so as long as foes were hoisting threes, Army was fine.
To put the centrality of three-point shooting and three-point defense into perspective, consider the following national rankings: Army's overall field goal percentage defense (45 percent shooting from opponents) placed the Black Knights 249th in the nation. The team's two-point defense placed Army 305th, in the bottom 15 percent of all Division I basketball programs. The team's three-point defense earned a national ranking of 184, in the broad middle tier of college basketball.
Forward – Ella Ellis – Senior, 6-6, 195 2011-12 STATISTICS: 17.5 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game, 2.1 assists per game
Ellis is clearly Army's most dynamic player. His size makes him an agile wing forward with the quickness needed to create open looks. Ellis is a dependable foul shooter (82.8 percent last season), so Air Force must avoid fouling him in the act of shooting or in late-game situations, should they arise. Ellis hits a respectable 35.8 percent of his three-point attempts. He was the team's best rebounder last season on a roster that did not have anyone taller than 6-7 in its regular rotation. Center Zach Lord (6-foot-10) was injured, and center Brian Hornstein (also 6-10) averaged only 3.2 minutes per game.
Forward – Jordan Springer – Senior, 6-7, 220; 2011-12: 4.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Springer, unlike Ellis, operates exclusively in the paint. This is Army's muscleman on defense and the glass. Springer did not attempt a single three-point shot last season, a telling indication of his priorities at the offensive end of the floor. He won't extend Air Force's defense, but he will be a player to watch on the backboards.
Guard – Maxwell Lenox – Sophomore, 6-0, 190; 2011-12: 6.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg
Lenox is a creative but poor-shooting floor leader for the Black Knights. He's clearly the team's best assist man, the only player to average more than three assists per game last season. Yet, Lenox hit only 16.7 percent (one sixth) of his threes in the 2011-2012 campaign. Lenox's foremost virtues are his team-oriented brand of ball – he seeks to involve himself in every way but shooting – and his toughness. When the Falcons have the ball, they need to be aware of Lenox's pressure defense and how disruptive it can be.
Guard – Mo Williams – Sophomore, 6-1, 185; 2011-12: 5 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.2 apg
This is not the guard for the NBA's Utah Jazz (formerly the Cleveland Cavaliers). Army's Mister Mo is only 26.9-percent three-point shooter. He did not light up scoreboards last season. However, Williams – who received a healthy 21.6 minutes per game as a freshman – has likely retooled his game for a new season. Air Force needs to see if Williams has appreciably developed his skill set. The Falcons need to be ready to put the clamps on Williams if he shows a new side of himself in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Guard – Josh Herbeck – Junior, 6-2, 190; 2011-12: 10.3 ppg, 3 rpg, 1.3 apg, .401 3-point field goal percentage (3-PT FG %)
Some teams have snipers, those relentlessly bold and successful three-point shooters you can't leave open. Herbeck is Army's sniper. He attempted 187 threes last season, an average of more than six per game, and made 75 of them for a percentage just north of 40. Herbeck also throws himself into the fray on the glass, something that Air Force's guards have to watch out for.
It's hard to know exactly how Spiker and his coaching staff will juggle the rotation for Army, but one can safely bet that guards Milton Washington and Jason Pancoe will receive a fair share of minutes as reserves. Both men received at least 13 minutes of playing time per game in the 2011-2012 season. Washington attempted only 65 shots last season (and just three from three-point range), marking him like Lenox in terms of his willingness to perform off-ball duties that don't show up on the stat sheet. Pancoe attempted only 29 threes last season, but he did hit 12 of them. Pancoe is a good pure shooter who will demand attention from the Falcons' defense.
In the frontcourt for Army, forwards Whit Thornton and Cartavious Kincade plus center Andrew Stire should see a fair amount of playing time against Air Force. They all logged at least 10.5 minutes per game last season and stand the best chance of getting a longer look from Spiker. None of the three men averaged more than 3.6 points or 2.3 rebounds per game, meaning that they are relatively unproven commodities at both ends of the floor for the Black Knights. This team doesn't yet know who will compensate for the production of former guard Julian Simmons, a West Point graduate who averaged 11.5 points per game in his senior season.
Keys to the Game
1) Play over the top. Center Taylor Broekhuis, at 6-10, will enjoy a three-inch height advantage over his counterpart in the low post. Guard Michael Lyons, at 6-5, will also be at least three inches taller than the man who guards him. Broekhuis and Lyons must find ways to comfortably shoot over the top of their defenders, and their teammates need to give them the ball in spots on the floor that will enable them to use their size. Air Force's height should be a big boon for the Falcons on offense. This is how an opening-day game – with all of its potential challenges and disruptions – can be smoothly handled. Broekhuis and Lyons are in a position to minimize the effect that opening-day jitters (and their attendant rough edges) will have on the Falcons' halfcourt sets.
2) Lock down Ellis and Herbeck. Army has one proven scorer and one proven sniper. If Air Force can effectively contain these two weapons, the Black Knights probably won't be able to find the additional scoring production they'll need in order to win this game. Smart defensive rotations and adjustments – ones that take away the right people and force less proven role players to step up for Army – will enable Air Force to stifle the Black Knights' offense on Saturday.