Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview
Air Force has written its name on list of teams that play very different brands of basketball when at home and on the road. The Falcons scored a grand total of just 92 points in losses at Fresno State and San Diego State to start off the month of March. Then, this past Saturday, they threw down 89 in an exhilarating win over conference champion New Mexico. Air Force knocked Los Lobos out of a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, validating so much of the work - and progress - this team has accumulated this season.
Air Force should feel that with New Mexico on the other side of the bracket in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, it can make a deep run in Sin City. Coach Dave Pilipovich has the meal-ticket scorer - Michael Lyons - and the clutch sidekick, Todd Fletcher, who can carry this team through three games in three days. Colorado State, looming as a possible semifinal opponent, has been torched by hot-shooting guards in recent weeks. The Rams are great at rebounding, but their defense has been sieve-like in early March. Air Force can certainly beat CSU, but first, the Falcons have to win a MWC quarterfinal for the first time against UNLV.
Air Force has to think it can beat Vegas for multiple - and obvious - reasons: First, the Falcons took the Runnin' Rebels to overtime when these teams first met at the Thomas and Mack Center. Second, UNLV is now struggling at home. The Rebels barely beat Boise State last Tuesday and lost at home to Fresno State this past Saturday. Coach Dave Rice's team is limping into this tournament and is ripe for the plucking.
The other thing to note about UNLV at tournament time is that the Rebels, despite hosting this event on a regular basis over the past half-decade, have not won the Mountain West Tournament since 2008 under former coach Lon Kruger. The Rebels do win quarterfinal games in this event, but they haven't made many deep runs in recent years. If there's a mythology surrounding this game, it's not that UNLV is unbeatable at home; it's that Air Force just doesn't win in the Mountain West Tournament. This game is more about Air Force's mental block(s) than about UNLV's state of mind. The way Air Force plays and carries itself on the floor will determine the flow and feel of this contest.
UNLV EXTENDED STAT PACK
Field goal shooting percentage: 44.1. National ranking: 125. Mountain West Conference ranking: 5.
Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 49.5. National ranking: 89. MWC ranking: 3.
Three-point shooting percentage: 33.1. National: 221. MWC: 6.
Effective field goal shooting percentage (threes mixed with twos as a measure of efficiency): 49.7 percent. National: 129. MWC: 3.
Free throw shooting percentage: 70.6. National: 133. MWC: 6.
True shooting percentage (threes, twos, and free throws in the same pot as a measure of efficiency): 53.7 percent. National: 129. MWC: 5.
Possessions per 40 minutes: 70.8. National: 42. MWC: 1.
Points scored per possession: 1.004. National: 136. MWC: 6.
Points allowed per possession: 0.894. National: 22. MWC: 1.
Turnovers per game: 14.2. National: 255. MWC: 9.
Assists per game: 16.6. National: 8. MWC: 1.
Field goal percentage defense: 38.7. National: 15. MWC: 1.
Two-point field goal percentage defense: 42.5. National: 21. MWC: 2.
Three-point field goal percentage defense: 30.6. National: 37. MWC: 2.
Rebounds per game: 36.9. National: 6. MWC: 2.
Rebounding percentage: 54.9. National: 28. MWC: 3.
Blocked shots per game: 5.9. National: 9. MWC: 1.
Keys To The Game
1) Shoot with Clune-like confidence. What else is there to say at this point? Air Force shoots the ball so well in its own building and plays with an enormous amount of confidence. This doesn't carry over to the road. UNLV is playing on its home floor, but perhaps the neutral-court flavor of this contest - with neutrals rooting for the underdog - will give Air Force the psychological transformation it needs. If the Falcons can shoot at a "Cluney" level, then by George, they'll have an Ocean's Eleven-like party on Wednesday against UNLV.
2) Win the battle of the boards... again. Air Force embarrassed UNLV in Colorado Springs because it hustled so much more than Vegas did on the glass. You know that UNLV coach Dave Rice will remind his team about that disgraceful performance in the Rockies. UNLV, already mad that it lost at home to Fresno State this past weekend, will come strong out of the gate. Air Force needs to meet UNLV's initial flurry, especially on the boards. Air Force can't let Vegas get a quick 10-2 run in this game, not because AFA can't come back (it can), but because UNLV will gain a comfort zone from such a development.
Keys To The Tournament
1) Shoot the lights out. What will matter against UNLV will matter against Colorado State in a would-be semifinal and New Mexico in a possible title tilt. Air Force needs to bring its home-court shooting prowess to Las Vegas. If it doesn't, you can forget about everything else that's being said here.
2) Foul shots. The other way to neutralize the defense of both UNLV and New Mexico (quarterfinals and final) and the rebounding proficiency of Colorado State (semifinals) is to get to the charity stripe. Air Force, if its threes don't fall, has to find a way to get cheap points while also putting its opponents in foul trouble. That's the essential plan B for the Falcons in Sin City this week.
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