Air Force-Stanford Preview

The first game last night at Maples Pavilion was a tooth-and-nail fight to the finish between Long Beach State and Air Force. The #32-ranked Falcons prevailed and this evening will battle Stanford for the right to play in Kansas City next week in the semifinals of the CBE Classic against Duke. After scouting Air Force last night, Chris Jaenike previews the matchups on both ends of the floor.

I was able to watch the second half of the game between Air Force and Long Beach State.  Here are some brief thoughts on the Falcons, how Stanford matches up with them and what to expect tonight...

AIR FORCE OFFENSE vs. STANFORD DEFENSE

On offense, Air Force runs the "Princeton offense," or at least some variety of it.  That means lots of screens and (back door) cuts and extensive use of the high post.  By far the most impressive players in my opinion are center Nick Welch and forward Jacob Burtschi.  The former didn't put up big numbers (nine pts), but he is a focal point of the offense even when he isn't taking a lot of shots.  He's a good passer in the high post and can help out with ballhandling duties against a press (not that Stanford is likely to press).  Burtschi, who tallied 22 last night, is a high motor guy who does some of everything.  You'll see both guys all over the court on offense, including outside the arc and in the high and low post.

Expect Welch and Burtschi to be the key players for Air Force on both ends against Stanford.  The Falcons run so much stuff through Welch on offense that it's critical he be defended well.  Robin Lopez will have a considerable size advantage (four inches and maybe 20-30 pounds), and he's very good at defending away from the basket for a seven-footer, but the way Welch is used all over the court and his craftiness have me concerned about the possibility of foul trouble for Lopez.  That possibility is exacerbated by the likely temptation to challenge lay-up attempts off backdoor cuts.  Backup Taj Finger probably does not have the bulk and strength to deal with Welch effectively (notwithstanding his performance against Leon Powe last year), so Lopez' avoidance of foul trouble may be the single biggest key for Stanford tonight.

Burtschi will be a tough assignment as well, and some combination of Fred Washington, Lawrence Hill and Finger will have to step up to the task.  Air Force's perimeter players pose less of a challenge than do Welch and Burtschi, and although they lack the ability to break down a defense off the dribble (not that penetration plays much of a role in a Princeton offense), they clearly have some guys capable of knocking down open threes.  Dan Nwaelele went 3-of-7 from deep last night, and Burtschi added three treys of his own, although it appears that all of the Falcons have a green light if open.

STANFORD OFFENSE vs. AIR FORCE DEFENSE

Air Force is likely to mix up its defenses, employing some zone and some man-to-man.  The Falcons do not have great quickness on the perimeter, and LBSU managed a respectable number of open three-point attempts.  Stanford's guards, particularly Anthony Goods, could similarly get some good looks, although Goods is likely to be a focal point of the Falcons' defense gameplan.  Stanford will have to be disciplined, as the Falcons do not gamble much or give up cheap baskets, and this will be the first good test of Stanford's ability to execute its halfcourt offense.  Mitch Johnson's patience and aversion to forcing things should be a big help in this regard.

LBSU's guards were able to beat their Air Force counterparts off the dribble and get into the paint on occasion, and although Stanford does not have as many penetrators, don't be surprised if Goods and, to a lesser extent, Washington and Landry Fields try to dribble-penetrate a little more than usual.

Lopez should be able to get some good looks inside against the Air Force's smallish frontcourt, although the Falcons may well opt to double the post liberally or pack in their zone to limit the damage.  Hill's improved drop-step move, which was extremely effective against San Jose State, could also be an effective weapon.

OUTLOOK

Don't expect a lot of surprises from Air Force tonight.  On offense, the Falcons will run their Princeton style system and rely on execution, and they will play fundamentally sound defense, attempt to limit transition opportunities and force Stanford to execute its halfcourt offense.  This will be the first tough matchup for a young Stanford team, and one could easily make a case for the Falcons to be favored on a neutral court.  On second thought, if Maples is half-empty again, it really could resemble a neutral court.  But seriously, this one is close to a toss-up.  The pick here is Stanford in a low-scoring nail-biter, 65-64.


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