Falcon hoopstersflying over radar

Jan 17, 2006 12:34 AM


It may be a bit premature to pencil in Air Force for one of the 64 berths to this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, but a 15-2 start and virtual cinch 20-win season have Falcons fans entitled to speculate.

Wyoming ended Air Force’s 12-game winning streak with last week’s 55-50 win in Laramie as a 4-point home dog. Air Force was held to a season worst 5-of-19 from 3-point land and only had eight free throw attempts.

So much for the bad stuff.

The Falcons have been a consistent play against the spread, covering seven of nine board games in Las Vegas sports books. Air Force is also 11-0 in Colorado Springs and 6-1 ATS (against the spread) as a favorite.

Three times this season, Air Force starters have been named Mountain West Conference Players of the Week. The latest was 6-foot-5 junior Dan Nwaelele, honored for averaging 20 points and four assists in two victories. Earlier, Antoine Hood and John Frye were tabbed by the MWC.

The Falcons are now into Mountain West Conference play, hosting Utah on Thursday and then traveling during the next week to New Mexico and UNLV — two of the toughest home courts in the country.

Air Force is not rich in college basketball success through the years, so why the sudden turnaround? It starts with Jeff Bzdelik, who formerly coached the Denver Nuggets. When Bzdelik took over the Nuggets in 2002, they were one of the NBA’s worst teams. The next season he overhauled the roster, helped draft Carmelo Anthony, and produced a 43-39 record, sixth best turnaround in league history.

Bzdelik was fired in late December 2004 when Denver fell on hard times and now has guided the Falcons to their best-ever start in his first year at the Academy. The Denver Post rates Air Force best among the five area teams, including MWC in-state rival Colorado State. Interestingly, the Rams have a better RPI ranking (39) nationally than the Falcons (54). The others are Colorado (102), Denver (150) and Wyoming (163).

"Coach Bzdelik is definitely a mastermind," Hood recently told the Post. "When he talks, it’s like we’re all a bunch of kids listening to your dad."

Air Force, like Northwestern, adopted the "back-door" Princeton offense used by former AF coaches Joe Scott and Chris Mooney with one new wrinkle — a more up-tempo style. Opponents are shooting just over 41 percent from the field, compared to 48 a year ago.

The Falcons are on the fringe of a Top 25 ranking, but still have to fight off critics that point to years of failure in the program. The team’s major flow is depth —the starting five averages 31 minutes a game!

The Wyoming result was a major disappointment in Vegas to Falcons bettors, so the next few weeks will be huge to determine whether Bzdelik has a hit or a fading overachiever on his hands.