The weight of a new reality did indeed hold down the Air Force Falcons, precisely when this team was…
Second Scouting Report: Colorado State
Air Force removed the blot of the Nevada loss by taking UNLV to the cleaners on Wednesday night, as expected. The Rebels are now 1-5 on the road in Mountain West play, and Air Force did what any solid home team in the conference should have done against the no-backbone bunch from Vegas. Now, though, comes a team that – unlike UNLV – is tough between the ears. Colorado State plays hard at all times. The Rams have lost only once since they last played Air Force on Jan. 16. That one loss? It came at New Mexico. In other words, Colorado State is winning all the games it is supposed to win. The Rams, on the strength of a 39-point win over the Falcons in Fort Collins a month ago, deserve to be seen as the favorite in this contest. This means, however, that a loss to CSU is not a bad loss for Air Force in its pursuit of a tournament ticket.
Here's the simple breakdown of the Falcons' NCAA chances at this point: In the regular season, Air Force has six games left. Three games are what one would call "burden games," and the other three are "opportunity games." A "burden game" for a bubble team is a bad or harmful loss that needs to be avoided at all costs. An "opportunity game" is a resume booster that does a lot of good if won, but doesn't hurt much if it is lost. Air Force's resume is currently one that is light on bad losses but also quality wins. The path to the Big Dance for Dave Pilipovich and Co. must consist of a perfect record in "burden games" and at least one win in "opportunity games."
The three "burden games" for Air Force are at Boise State, at home against Wyoming, and at Fresno State. Yes, Boise State is a genuinely good team – a loss in Idaho would not be "bad" in the sense of losing to a grossly inferior opponent. Yet, without any non-conference scalps on its belt, Air Force has to sweep Boise in order to forge a better resume than the one the Broncos have. The Falcons are competing with Boise State for an at-large spot in the NCAAs, so a win in Taco Bell Arena is a must.
The three "opportunity games for Air Force are this Colorado State game, the visit to San Diego State, and the home finale against New Mexico. One win in these three contests, combined with a 3-0 record in remaining "burden games," will put Air Force right on the cut line, the middle of a very large bubble. Under this scenario, a win in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament would very likely be necessary to put AFA on the good side of the bubble come Selection Sunday. A loss would probably leave the Falcons on the outside looking in.
Two wins in these "opportunity games" plus a 3-0 record in "burden games" will put Air Force on the good side of the bubble. Should such a scenario occur, the Falcons would be able to gain even more ground with a win in the quarterfinals of the MWC Tournament, probably getting a spot in the NCAAs but not quite becoming a lock. What would make the Falcons a lock? Going 6-0 in these next three weeks or, short of that, going 5-1 and then making the MWC Tournament final. You can do some basic plotting and arrive at this conclusion: A win here against Colorado State substantially expands Air Force's possibilities and percentages. A loss to CSU would force the Falcons to win four of their following five, plus the MWC quarterfinals, to get on the good side of the bubble.
COLORADO STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Colorado State has firmly established itself as one of the top two teams in the Mountain West. The Rams could very well get a No. 6 seed (with an outside shot at a 5 seed) if they continue to win with regularity. Losses to Colorado and Illinois-Chicago, combined with the lack of a major non-conference scalp, will prevent CSU from rising any higher on the S-curve in the weeks before Selection Sunday. Maybe the Rams can win their next 10 games, finishing at 30-4 as the Mountain West Tournament champions. That would get them a 4 seed, but anything less would probably leave them as a 5, given their barren non-conference portfolio.
Enough worrying about seeds, though – the main thing to emphasize is that Colorado State is going to make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, a tremendous feat for this program. Moreover, the Rams are going to pull off this "Double Dance" with two different choreographers. Tim Miles was the Dance leader last season, and Larry Eustachy – once again ascendant in the coaching ranks after his well-documented troubles and subsequent time in the salt mines of Southern Mississippi – is the Dance master in 2013. Eustachy has turned Colorado State into a rebounding colossus. Basketballs, if they had thought bubbles, would express shock if they were not corralled by Colorado State players after clanging off a rim. The Rams clean the glass better than any other team in the United States, and that's why they're headed back to Bracketville. Air Force has to know how massive an effort it must make to stay with Colorado State on Saturday.
The backdrop to this matchup is simple, but it lends an appropriate air of urgency to the proceedings inside Clune Arena: Air Force got punched in the mouth the last time it took the floor against Colorado State. The Falcons were tossed around like rag dolls, brutalized on the boards by the Rams. How badly did Colorado State throttle Air Force near the tin? The Rams doubled up the Academy on the boards, 38-19. They snared 12 offensive rebounds, while the Falcons collected only three. CSU earned 23 foul shots, while Air Force made only four trips to the charity stripe. Total rebounding numbers can be overvalued, but a minus-nine tally on the offensive glass and a minus-19 differential at the foul line cannot be replicated in this contest. If Air Force encounters anything close to those differentials, it will lose. The Falcons need to be close to even on the offensive glass (more as a result of limiting CSU's offensive boards than by increasing their own total). They must carve out an outright edge in free throw makes – not a huge one, but a positive differential.
COLORADO STATE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Rebounds per game: 39.3. Change: -0.8 rebounds (40.1 on Jan. 16, the last time these two teams met). NOTE: CSU is now number one in the nation in this category; it was third on Jan. 16.
Rebounding percentage: 62.4. Change: -1.4 percent (63.8 on Jan. 16). NOTE: CSU is still number one in the nation in this category. It led the nation on Jan. 16, too.
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 34.2. Change: +0.2 percent (34 percent even on Jan. 16).
Points allowed per possession: 0.919. Change: -.021 points allowed (0.94 on Jan. 16).
Turnovers per game: 11. Change: +0.2 turnovers (10.8 on Jan. 16). NOTE: This is still the 18th-best total in the country.
Blocked shots per game: 2.4. Change: -0.4 blocked shots (2.8 on Jan. 16).
Forward – Colton Iverson – Senior, 6-10, 261 2012-13: 13.5 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game
Iverson's scoring is down by 1.4 points (14.9 on Jan. 16), and his rebounding is up by 0.7 rebounds (9.1 on Jan. 16). It bears repeating that Iverson was not able to keep pace with the quickness of the Big Ten at the University of Minnesota, but he's found a comfort zone in Fort Collins with the Rams. Iverson's physical style of play meshes with a Colorado State roster that really and truly rebounds better than any other. Some teams have lockdown defenses, but Colorado State has a "water seal" identity on the glass; opponents always get boxed out, and Iverson is a big part of the Rams' success in this facet of competition.
Forward – Pierce Hornung – Senior, 6-6, 202; 2012-13: 9.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.2 assists per game
Hornung's scoring is up 0.3 points (9.4 on Jan. 16). His rebounding is down 1.1 rebounds (10.4 on Jan. 16), and his assists are up by one tenth of a point (2.1 on Jan. 16). Hornung was an elite rebounder last season, but now he has that much more help, chiefly from Iverson but also from forward Greg Smith and reserve guard Daniel Bejarano. Hornung doesn't have to ring up huge numbers as long as he's chasing down 50-50 balls, especially in late-game situations. The extra possessions Hornung gives to the Rams have enabled this program to make two straight NCAA tournament appearances – in 2012 and this season. The Rams are, if not a lock, a team that will surely become a lock before the end of February.
Forward – Greg Smith – Senior, 6-6, 221; 2012-13: 11.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg
Smith's scoring is unchanged from Jan. 16, and his rebounding has improved by 0.3 boards per game (5.5 on Jan. 16). Smith, alongside Iverson, Hornung and Bejarano, is one of four CSU players averaging at least 5.8 boards per game. That's off the charts. What's also instructive to note is that Smith is one of four double-figure scorers on the Rams. Without the team's rebounding prowess, you probably wouldn't see Smith rate this highly in the scoring column. Putback baskets provide a lot of fuel for the Rams.
Guard – Wes Eikmeier – Senior, 6-3, 168; 2012-13: 11.6 ppg, 2.1 apg
Eikmeier's numbers have barely changed since Jan. 16. He's plus 0.1 in scoring (11.5 points per game a month ago) and minus 0.1 assists (2.2 a month ago). Eikmeier was quite effective the last time Colorado State met Air Force. The Falcons will need to crowd him in the early stages of this game and make sure that he doesn't attain a fluid shooting rhythm.
Guard – Dorian Green – Senior, 6-2, 192; 2012-13: 12.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.2 apg
Green's per-game scoring is up 0.8 points from Jan. 16, when the senior averaged 12 points on the nose. His rebounding has slightly dipped (down 0.3 rebounds from its 2.9 average on Jan. 16). He's handing out more dimes, up 0.6 assists from Jan. 16 (3.6 per game at the time). Green is a late-game shotmaker, but keep in mind that on the occasions when he misses, Hornung is often there to get him an extra shot. Such was the case this past Wednesday against San Diego State. Green knocked down the three-point shot that gave CSU a 61-60 lead with 1:05 left in regulation, but Hornung gobbled up a rebound of a Green miss to set up that decisive moment for the Rams. Containing Green at crunch time is certainly a priority for Air Force, but making CSU a one-and-done team at the offensive end is the bigger point of focus for the Falcons.
Remember that Eustachy has five seniors in his starting five. His team plays at altitude, but he just doesn't need to extend his rotation beyond seven players. In Wednesday's win over San Diego State, guards Daniel Bejarano and Jonathan Octeus combined for 11 points and 6 rebounds in 35 minutes. Octeus scored nine points in just 13 minutes, while Bejarano snapped down 6 rebounds, consistent with his season-long average, in just 22 minutes of floor time. There's little need for a 10-man rotation when two reserves regularly make the kinds of contributions Bejarano and Octeus throw into the pot for Colorado State.
Keys to the Game
1) Team rebounding – no one cheats down the court on a released CSU shot. All five Air Force players on the court must help each other on the glass. Colorado State is a ruthless, relentless rebounding team. It's not a great shooting team, but its best offense is often chasing a miss on the backboard and putting it in the bucket. If the Falcons can't be "Ram Tough" in this game, they're not going to win it unless they shoot the lights out.
2) Make rebounds a non-issue at the offensive end. File this under the "easy to say, hard to do" banner: If you make shots, the other team's superior rebounding won't matter." The better question is "How?" How can Air Force put itself in position to make a lot of shots in its initial offense? Colorado State has an active, smart defense, but it is not lethally fast. Michael Lyons can get into the paint against this defense. If he gets inside the foul line, about 12 feet from the basket, he needs to read Iverson's reaction. If Iverson cannot get to Lyons' shooting hand, Lyons should strongly consider the 12-footer. If Iverson does come away from the basket to challenge his shot, Lyons needs to make a "drive or dish" calculation. If Hornung helps off his man, a likely occurrence, Lyons will have to make the kickout, and Air Force will need to hit that particular shot in order to distort the shape of Colorado State's rotations.
Air Force's plan of attack against CSU's defense is a lot like a football game plan in the sense that the Falcons, in order to be really effective, can't just play option football. In the best of the Tim Jefferson tradition, a well-timed downfield pass works wonders for the offense as a whole by keeping the defense off balance. Yes, Lyons will need to get to the tin and earn foul shots in this game, but Pilipovich can't mince words with his players before tip time: Role players on the wings and in the backcourt have to stick mid-range and three-point shots. Yes, the ideal in basketball is to get layups, dunks, and foul shots all the time, but Colorado State is too brawny and physically imposing near the rim, and the Rams show great discipline by not fouling that much. Lyons will be effective to the extent that his teammates turn his kickout passes into makes. If Lyons doesn't force shots, and if the role players Lyons trusts are then able to hit their jumpers, Air Force will be in very good shape.
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