2007 Basketball Blue Ribbon Preview: Air Force

COACH AND PROGRAM

Air Force emerged on the national college basketball radar in recent seasons, earning two trips to the NCAA Tournament during the best four-year stretch in the program’s history. But the 2007-08 Falcons will hardly be recognizable to even the most diehard of college basketball fans.

Gone are the top four scorers from last year’s 26-9 NIT semifinal squad and along with them 74 percent of the team’s point production and 68 percent of its rebounding. Dan Nwaelele, Jacob Burtschi, Matt McCraw and Nick Welch were part of a group that won 90 games the last four seasons and their names are all over the Air Force record book.

Compounding the player loss, the Falcons suffered an equally big loss on the sideline. Coach Jeff Bzdelik left for greener pastures and a higher ceiling at the University of Colorado, leav-ing Air Force in search of a new head coach for the fourth time in five years. The Falcons didn’t look far to find Bzdelik’s replacement, hiring his top assistant the previous two seasons, Jeff Reynolds.

While he’s not a national name, Reynolds takes over at Air Force with four years of Division II head coaching experience. While the demands at tiny Wingate (N.C.) College are far differ-ent than those at Air Force, Reynolds did an outstanding job, going 82-34 and leading the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament and national ranking in the late 1990s.

Reynolds is taking over team that appears to be a long way from a national tournament or ranking, despite its recent success. The Falcons won a school-record 26 games last season but what made that record possible — four wins in the NIT — made the season something of a disappointment.

After winning 24 games and earning a controversial bid to the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Air Force appeared to be a near lock to return in 2007. The Falcons were 23-4 on Feb. 20 with road or neutral site wins against Texas Tech, Stanford and George Washington to their credit. But the soaring Falcons fell further and faster than anyone could have imagined.

Air Force lost its last three regular-season games, including a devastating defeat at conference cellar-dweller TCU, and bowed out in the first round of the MWC Tournament to old nemesis Wyoming. Suddenly Air Force, a team that hadn’t had any sort of postseason wins, including conference tournaments, since 1990, found itself out of the Big Dance.

The run to an NIT semifinal and Madison Square Garden, which ended with a 68-67 loss to Clemson, somewhat eased the sting, but it’s not the way the greatest senior class in Air Force history wanted to exit.

But everything is relative. A trip to the 2008 NIT would likely net Reynolds MWC coach-of-the-year honors.

One thing that won’t change is the team’s style of play. Reynolds will continue to employ the Princeton-style offense Joe Scott installed upon his arrival in 2000 and the sticky match-up zone defense that has made Air Force an effective defensive team.

Though the tenets of the offense will be unchanged, the Falcons won’t likely be as reliant on three-pointers. Last year’s team established a school record with 316 three-pointers, but the players who made 240 of them have graduated.

”We will have to tweak [the system] to fit our personnel, but we will play the same style,” Reynolds said. ”I don’t know that we will be able to shoot the ball as well as we’ve done in the past, so we will have to try and find different ways to score. This year we will find ourselves with [some] guys that are better drivers, better creators and scorers than they are shooters.”

PLAYERS

One who qualifies as a scorer and a shooter is the lone returning starter, 6-3 senior point guard Tim Anderson (9.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg), who will be counted on to do a little bit of every-thing. The team’s only known quantity, Anderson averaged 32.4 minutes per game last season. He’s the only returnee to average as many as 14 minutes. Anderson has steadily improved since arriving at Air Force, and he will be the focal point of the team.

”He is very cerebral and an outstanding shooter,” Reynolds said. ”He is much more athletic than people give him credit for. He is very talented at creating space and being able to get his shot off. He is an extremely hard worker.”

Adam Hood (2.4 ppg, 0.7 rpg, .565 FG), a 6-1 senior, will have the opportunity to win a spot alongside Anderson. Hood, who has played in just 32 career games, including 16 last season, is unproven. Air Force will need players like Hood, who wasn’t able to get off the bench playing behind a talented group of seniors, to produce if it is to maintain its level of success.

But it probably doesn’t bode well for Hood that even with Air Force struggling down the stretch last season, he couldn’t get off the bench. He played a total of 100 minutes and 26 of them came in an 82-31 rout of Colorado College.
Beyond Anderson, 6-6 junior Andrew Henke (4.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg) is the only other player with any significant experience. Henke averaged 13.7 minutes and was fourth on the team in three-pointers made (28) in his limited time. Henke is the team’s best returning three-point shooter, and he should get plenty of opportunities. What he will need to do is add more to his game, particularly on the glass.

In addition to Henke, 6-5 junior Anwar Johnson (1.8 ppg, 0.7 rpg) will be a factor on the wing. He is one of the team’s best athletes, though he is much more a scorer than shooter. John-son, who averaged 7.2 minutes in 32 games, was the only Falcon that played more than three minutes and failed to make a three-pointer.

Johnson will also help Anderson in handling the ball. Despite modest numbers his first two seasons — a total of 63 points scored — Johnson could be poised to take a significant step for-ward.

Two newcomers could also figure prominently into the backcourt rotation — freshmen Evan Washington and Derek Brooks, both of whom spent last season at the Academy’s prep school. Washington, a 6-4 guard, is nearly as athletic as Johnson and will give Reynolds another scorer who should be able to create his own shot.

The 6-6 Brooks is a sweet-shooting forward, though he will need to add muscle to his 190-pound frame. Counting on contributions from freshmen at a service academy is difficult, but this team needs someone to play off the bench, and Washington and Brooks are the most likely candidates.

Freshmen Tyler Burke of Warsaw (Mo.) High School, a 6-2 guard, and Tom Fow, from Scottsdale, Ariz. and Notre Dame Prep, a 6-6 forward could also see minutes on the perimeter.

Comparatively speaking, the Air Force backcourt features a bunch of grizzled veterans compared to its frontcourt. The top returning frontcourt player is 6-8 senior Eric Kenzik (1.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.4 apg), who has played a total of 29 career games and attempted 26 shots. Kenzik will likely occupy either the starting center or power forward spot, depending on the lineup Reynolds plays. At 208 pounds, Kenzik is slight of frame, but that isn’t unusual for the Falcons.

Senior Keith Maren (1.3 ppg, 0.8 rpg) also returns in hopes of delivering a memorable senior season. The 240-pound Maren can play either frontcourt spot as well and is the team’s beefi-est player.

”Both have sort of waited their turn and played behind two outstanding players in Burtschi and Welch,” Reynolds said of Kenzik and Maren. ”There will be times we end up playing them together and there will be times we end up playing Eric inside and moving Henke down to the other forward position.”

Freshman Phillip Brown, from Eagles Landing Academy in McDonough, Ga., is a 6-7, 230-pound center who averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds last season. He mixes intelligence with physicality; he’s a quick jumper who can get to the rim in a hurry and block shots. Bzdelik called him a ”big-time” recruit.

Junior forward Matt Holland (1.2 ppg, 0.8 rpg) will also look to carve out a more significant role, as will 6-7 forward Grant Parker (1.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg), who played in just nine games last season.

Unlike recent seasons, the composition of Air Force’s lineup and the distribution of minutes will be unsettled entering the season.

”What’s been done here the last two years, quite frankly, may not be repeated until we can get another group like that,” the pragmatic Reynolds said. ”We could have that in this freshman group, but freshmen often play like freshmen. & The key to our program the last two years has been consistency. Right now we have some veteran players that just haven’t had playing time. Once those guys find the difference between a reserve and starting role, I think we will begin seeing some consistency.”

Air Force has enjoyed a great run, including a 57-2 record at Clune Arena dating back to the 2003-04 season, but it’s difficult to see how the Falcons won’t take a step back this season, maybe even a considerable one. They will play hard and smart but the intangibles can only make up for so much.

Anderson is the team’s only proven talent, and he will move from a support role to that of leading man. Johnson and Henke will need to prove they were worthy of more minutes than they received last season. Washington and Brooks appear to have bright futures, but the Falcons need the future to arrive in November.

It’s hard to even venture a guess on how the frontcourt will play. The best that can be said for Kenzik and Maren is that they are unproven. Reynolds has won before as a head coach and he saw what worked for Bzdelik, but after four years of great success, Air Force fans will need to be patient.

Whether you want to call it retooling, Reynolds’ word, or rebuilding, the Falcons will do well to approach .500 this season.

Last Season 26-9 (.743)
Conference Record 10-6 (t-3rd)
Starters Lost/Returning 4/1
Coach Jeff Reynolds (UNC Greensboro ’78)
Record At School First year
Career Record 82-34 (5 years)
RPI Last 5 years 160-75-114-55-32

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: C+
BENCH/DEPTH: C-
FRONTCOURT: D
INTANGIBLES: B

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