The Falcons are coached by Princeton alum Joe Scott, who was an assistant at his alma mater from 1993-2000. Scott brought Princeton's slow-paced version of the motion offense with him to Colorado Springs when he became the head coach in 2000 and the Tigers will see a team that will try to waltz its way to The Big Dance rather than rock n' roll like the Tigers.
Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis says because of Air Force's offensive system and experienced lineup the Falcons are a team that the Tigers cannot afford to take lightly.
"Air Force is a totally different team than we have played," Ellis says. "Their style is totally different. First of all these are guys that are gym rats that just absolutely know how to play the game. They are very smart, intelligent, know the game and they focus in on your mistakes.
"They play the Princeton offense," Ellis adds. "That offense is one that spreads you out, eats up a lot of clock and you really have got to be patient when you play a team like this. They are a scary team from the standpoint of the way that they play."
Another reason that Ellis and his Tigers should pay special attention to the Falcons is the fact that they finished last season leading the country in scoring defense, only allowing opponents to average 57 points per game. This season the Falcons, who return four players who started last season, have been even stingier allowing only 44 points per game in three contests.
Six-foot-three senior guard/forward A.J. Kuhle, 6-3 junior guard Tim Keller, 6-5 sophomore guard Antoine Hood and 6-6 senior forward Joel Gerlach were all starters last season. Kuhle, Keller and Gerlach started all 28 games and Hood played in all 28 and started four. The only newcomer to the starting lineup is 6-8 sophomore center Nick Welch, who saw action in 23 games last season.
Welch is leading the charge for the Falcons with 12.5 points per game and is shooting 77 percent from the field. Next is the Gerlach, a senior who is averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
Hood has been productive with 10.3 points and 2.3 rebounds. Keller is adding 8.7 points along with 2.7 rebounds. Surprisingly, the Falcons' other senior, Kuhle, is struggling early with only 1.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
Along with their tough defense, Ellis says that Air Force has the type of players who can and will put up quick points for the Falcons. "They have some neat players, too," Ellis says. "I like their entire starting lineup. This is where they hurt you--they have got four guys around the perimeter that can just nail a three in Gerlach, Kuhle, Keller and Hood. Keller led the Mountain West in three-point shooting and Gerlach was third. They have the number one and three best shooters in their conference so they are going to be looking to let it go."
The Falcons are off to a 2-1 start this season with wins over Arkansas Pine-Bluff (63-40) and Navy (86-46). They lost their last game, a 46-38 setback in Nashville at Belmont University. Air Force is averaging 62.3 points, 28 rebounds, 13.3 assists and only 11 turnovers per game. The Falcons are shooting 46 percent from the floor and despite their two great perimeter shooters they are only managing 32.5 percent from behind the three-point line.
Sunday's game will mark only the second time that the Tigers and Air Force have met in basketball with the first contest going to the Falcons 48-46 in overtime December 29, 1980 in the first round of the Blade Glass Classic in Toledo, Ohio. Overall the Tigers hold a 3-4 mark against members of the Mountain West Conference. Auburn has wins over BYU, Colorado State and UNLV and one to Air Force and Colorado State and two to UNLV.
Ian Young takes his defensive stance in practice.
The Tigers have been successful so far this season for a number of reasons, however the most important may be the play of Ian Young and Chris Lollar in the absence of starting point guard Lewis Monroe, who is out with a fractured bone in his foot. He could get his cast off as early as next week, but is not expected to be able to play until late December at the earliest.
Young, who was recruited to play the two guard spot for the Tigers, has been impressive in his ability to handle the defensive pressure of the point. However, the junior says that playing the position is nothing new to him.
"I've always been a point guard, but with my scoring ability in high school and junior college they just put me at the two and played me at some point," Young explains. "But when I'm at home or in the parks, I am always the point guard, get out of my way--the scoring point guard."
Along with his ability to handle the point, Young has been on fire from behind the three-point line this season and is fourth in the SEC shooting 55 percent from downtown.
As a team the Tigers are shooting much better from behind the arc, knocking down 39.7 percent of their treys. Along with the outside shooting the Tigers are shooting better overall and are fourth in the SEC hitting 51.7 percent of their shots from the floor. And Ellis explains that the improved shooting has been a big factor in the Tigers' success this season.
"The strength of our team is the inside game without question," Ellis says. "You have got three formidable guys that are in there, but people are going to take the inside game away and to loosen that up you have got to be able to knock down the shots.
"The only game that we struggled was when we didn't knock down the shot. Now, I don't know if we are going to be on target for 30 plus games because that is not an easy thing to do, but the more we are on target the more it is going to loosen up the inside game. And four out of five games we have been on target pretty well."
Another major plus for the Tigers this season has been their stingy defense. Auburn leads the SEC in steals with 13.6 per game and junior forward Brandon Robinson leads the SEC individually with 3.2 steals per game. And all of those takeaways have led to fewer points for the opposition as Auburn is only allowing 59.4 points per game, which is good enough for third in the league.
Young notes that Ellis is always thinking about the defensive end of the floor and that is really sinking in with him already. "I'm impressed with our defense first because that is how we get our offensive game going, now I know that," the junior says. "In junior college I wasn't thinking like that, but Coach Ellis embedded in my mind that if we play defense first the offensive game will come much easier."
Heading into Sunday's game against the Falcons, Ellis says that things are going smoothly at the moment for the Tigers. "I'll tell you what--this team has really amazed me in the way that they have played. We have beat three quality opponents and he has really handled it well. Our team is playing pretty well. I just want them to keep that up."
Looking at the Falcons, Ellis says Sunday's opponent will offer a challenge. "This is the type of game that drives coaches crazy," he says. "If you talk to people in the Mountain West the team that they hate to play is this team right here."
Ellis also notes that if the Tigers can jump out in front of the Falcons, Sunday's game will become much more comfortable. "A ten-point lead in a game like this is big, huge," he says. "I think the first five minutes of both halves are key."
The game will be televised regionally by CSS and is part of a doubleheader with the Auburn women's team, which will take on Buffalo at noon. The men's game is scheduled for 2 p.m. and both contests are part of a promotion called "Team up for Education Day." Any fan who presents a new school supply at the door will receive free admission.