Second Scouting Report: Nevada
Any bubble team tackles two challenges in February: Try to get premium wins when possible, and avoid bad losses at all costs. Winning at New Mexico on Wednesday was not a likely occurrence, so the Falcons didn't lose much in Albuquerque. On Saturday in Reno, Air Force faces the kind of game it can't afford to lose. As long as this team mops up against lower-tier foes in the Mountain West, it will not have to win road games against the elite teams in the league.
Here's the NCAA tournament outlook for Air Force over the remainder of the season. Yes, the outlook will be reshaped from week to week, but at this point in time, the big picture is as follows:
The Falcons will need to go at least 5-3 in their remaining eight games and win once in the Mountain West Tournament in order to feel comfortable about their situation. They need to handle Nevada, Boise State, Wyoming, and Fresno State – those four contests are the non-negotiables on the slate unless the Falcons can win at San Diego State or change the equation in another unexpected way. A likely minimum for Air Force consists of wins in each of the four "non-negotiables" plus one high-value win at home, ideally against New Mexico but very possibly against UNLV or Colorado State.
Given the way the Mountain West season has unfolded to this point, UNLV is the best chance for the Academy to get another impressive win on its resume. A sweep of UNLV and Colorado State next week – which will be tough but doable – would turn the Boise State road trip on Feb. 20 into a "negotiable" game, one the Falcons would not have to win. A 5-3 record plus a Mountain West quarterfinal triumph is the minimum target, but a 6-2 record is very much within the realm of possibility. A 6-2 record in the next eight games plus a win in the Mountain West quarterfinals would punch Air Force's ticket to the Big Dance, barring a wave of those dreaded "stolen bids" in conference tournaments (instances in which teams without at-large credentials pick off automatic bids and shrink the field for at-large contenders).
Back to the present moment, though: Precisely because UNLV and Colorado State linger on the schedule next week at Clune Arena, it is so easy for Air Force to look ahead to next week. Pilipovich and his staff must emphasize the importance of this game, which – if lost – will make it very hard for the Falcons to pack their bags for Bracketville on Selection Sunday. Winning statement games is great, but teams fail to make the NCAA tournament primarily because they absorb bad losses at this time of year, giving the Selection Committee a reason to exclude them from March Madness. Air Force needs to be on its best behavior this Saturday… or else.
This is a repeat scouting report, so as the second go-round between Air Force and Nevada approaches, the focus should be on what has changed since the last time the Falcons met the Wolf Pack, exactly a month ago on Jan. 9. In short, Nevada – while results-poor – is improvement-rich. The Pack have won only twice over the past month, but coach David Carter's team is a much more rugged defensive outfit, one that is going to test Air Force's patience when the Falcons have the ball. Air Force, as you could see on Wednesday night, was impatient against New Mexico. Far from being tentative, the Falcons were – if anything – too hyperactive. They were off balance when attacking the goal – decisive, yes, but not poised. John Wooden famously said, "be quick, but don't hurry." Air Force needs to heed that sage advice against Nevada's defense, which very nearly took down Colorado State on Wednesday. The Falcons need to watch that game film in order to realize how far Nevada has come in a month.
If this game is decided by more than two possessions (six points), it will be a surprise. Nevada played New Mexico on very even terms for most of last Saturday's game in Albuquerque. This simply isn't the same team Air Force pasted in the Mountain West opener.
NEVADA STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
NOTE: For repeat scouting reports, the national statistical ranking will be discarded. In its place will be the change in the given statistic since the last time Air Force played this particular opponent.
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 30. Change: -0.5 percent. Nevada had been shooting 30.5 percent from three-point range on Jan. 9.
Free throw shooting percentage: 74.3. Change: -0.7 percent. (75 percent on Jan. 9)
Three-point field goal defense: 37.2-percent shooting allowed. Change: +0.2 percent. (Nevada opponents shot 37 percent even from three-point range on Jan. 9.)
Fouls per game: 19. Change: -0.8 fouls. (Nevada averaged 19.8 fouls on Jan. 9.)
Rebounding percentage: 49.5. Change: -0.4 percent (49.9 on Jan. 9)
Forward – Kevin Panzer – Junior, 6-9, 225 2012-13: 4.3 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game
For the returning starters on any team that's involved in a repeat scouting report, we'll provide a mention of how a given player's statistics have changed. Panzer had been averaging 5.6 points per game on Jan. 9, so his output has decreased by an average of 1.3 points per game over the past month. He had been averaging 4.4 rebounds per game on Jan. 9, so his production has remained relatively steady in that regard. Panzer hasn't earned one free throw attempt since Dec. 15. He's on the floor for his defense and little else.
Guard – Jerry Evans, Jr. – Junior, 6-8, 210; 2012-13: 8.1 ppg, 6 rpg
Evans is the one member of Nevada's starting five who did not start in the Jan. 9 game between these two teams. He replaces freshman forward Cole Huff on the floor. Evans is an agile player whose lean, long body enables him to find the ball near the rim. He's a tough assignment on the glass, and that's where Air Force has to be able to hold him in check. It's worth pointing out that Evans is a credible scoring threat, too – he scored at least 12 points per game in a three-game stretch against San Diego State, Boise State, and UNLV (from Jan. 23 through Jan. 29). He went 14 of 27 from the field in that trio of tussles, just over 50 percent.
Guard – Malik Story – Senior, 6-5, 215; 2012-13: 16.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 assists per game, 1.1 steals per game
Story's scoring is slightly down over the past month – he averaged 16.8 points per game on Jan. 9. His rebounding total barely budged, and his 2.4 assist total is exactly what it was a month ago. His average of 1.1 steals per game is down from 1.4 on Jan. 9. Story exploded for 31 points this past Wednesday against Colorado State, but he scored only 9 points against UNLV on Jan. 29. Interestingly enough, Air Force held him to 3 points on Jan. 9, which could cut in either direction on Saturday. The Falcons might keep him under wraps, or Story will bust loose. The Falcons need to be ready for Story's best effort in Reno – that's a major point of concern for Pilipovich and the coaching staff.
Guard – Deonte Burton – Junior, 6-1, 190; 2012-13: 16 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.6 steals per game
Burton's scoring is up 0.3 points per game from Jan. 9. His rebounding is unchanged. His assists are up by 0.4 per game, and his steals are down 0.3 per game. Burton smoked Wyoming and Fresno State, two of the league's weaker teams, for 23 and 22 points respectively in the middle of January. Against the upper tier of the league, however – UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, and Colorado State – Burton has not exceeded 14 points per game. Burton, unlike Story, played extremely well against Air Force on Jan. 9, scoring 21 points on only 12 field goal attempts. This is the Academy's other primary defensive assignment.
Guard – Jordan Burris – Junior, 6-7, 220; 2012-13: 7.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Burris' scoring average is down 0.7 points per game since Jan. 9, and his rebounding is almost unchanged, down just 0.1 boards per contest. In the middle third of January, Burris went -0 for 10 from three-point range, but he's hit 5 of his last 13 treys. He earned six foul shots this past Wednesday against Colorado State, so even though he's not a potent offensive threat, he is looking to attack defenses in new ways.
Primary reserves Devonte Elliott and the aforementioned Huff are asked to carry the load on the Wolf Pack's bench. Elliott's scoring is up 0.3 points per game compared to Jan. 9, while Huff – no longer a starter – has lost 1.2 points per game and 0.8 rebounds per contest off his statistical averages.
Keys to the Game
1) Finish plays in the paint. Air Force got into the paint against New Mexico but did not exercise great care or touch with the ball. If the Falcons can continue to attack the tin but with more body control this time around, they should thrive… enough to win, at any rate.
2) Take away either Story or Burton. This is taken straight from the first scouting report a month ago: "The chances of locking down both Story and Burton, Nevada's two high-level guards, are minimal. The chances of holding one of them in check – thereby forcing the other one to do a lot of work – are pretty reasonable. As long as Air Force takes one of these two guards away from the Wolf Pack, Nevada is likely to struggle at the offensive end of the floor." Air Force locked down Story, while allowing 21 points to Burton. That worked out pretty well for the Falcons. There's no need to change this game key.
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