- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The sounds of Motown fill Clune Arena in Colorado Springs as Air Force’s basketball team takes 3-point shooting drills. The music then is accompanied by a subtle symphony of balls swishing through nets.

“It is my gym, and I will play what [music] I want to,” said Jeff Bzdelik, the former Denver Nuggets coach who now leads the 23rd-ranked Falcons (11-1). “If we are going to shoot for an extended period of time, we may as well pep it up a little bit. Shooting and music are both about rhythm anyway.”

The results have been sweet music indeed.

Air Force, predicted to finish third in the Mountain West Conference, not only has been beating major conference opponents but crushing them. The Falcons obliterated Colorado by 38 points, Wake Forest by 36 and Stanford by 34. Even Bob Knight’s quest to become the all-time winningest coach was put on hold by Air Force.

“We got beat by a team that was very tough-minded and a smart team,” said Knight, whose Texas Tech squad lost by only 14 points — perhaps because Air Force was playing its third game in four days. “What they have is an offense of two opposite things. They shoot well from the 3-point line and cut well to the basket. They do a good job with both things.”

The next potential victim is George Washington, which plays the Falcons in the first round of the Cable Car Classic late tomorrow night in Santa Clara, Calif. Air Force’s motion offense of backdoor layups and outside shots is second in the nation behind Florida with a 54 percent field goal shooting and third in 3-point shooting at 45 percent.

“Someone called it the Princeton offense on steroids,” senior forward Jacob Burtschi said. “I guess that is as good a description as any. It is more up-tempo with backdoor cuts. By the time [opponents] realize what hits them, it’s too late. Most teams don’t realize how good this system works and how well we run it.”

The undersized Falcons are a veteran group with four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, all of whom average in double figures. Dan Nwaelele leads the group with 14.3 points while shooting 61.8 percent, while fellow senior Burtschi (13.7 points) shoots 54 percent and 46.9 percent from 3-point range.

Other gunners are guards Matt McCraw and Tim Anderson, who each shoot 44 percent on 3-pointers. Nick Welch, a 6-8 senior center, shoots 55.1 percent and is 8-for-25 from beyond the arc.

“I need players who can shoot the 3-ball,” said Bzdelik, who is 35-8 for his two seasons at Air Force after being fired by the Denver Nuggets in December 2004. “If they can’t shoot, I can’t recruit them. And hopefully they can pass and dribble. I don’t worry about size. I like undersized guys who are mobile and can shoot.”

Air Force’s attack is set up by precise screens, pinpoint passes and a menacing defense. The Falcons are among the nation’s best ball-handing teams, averaging 17.3 assists and 10.6 turnovers. Opponents are shooting 40.4 percent against their tricky matchup zone.

The academy first served notice of its potential with a 75-45 thumping of Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. Burtschi collected 24 points and 12 rebounds as Air Force was extremely efficient with 19 assists and just six turnovers.

“It was like, ‘Good Lord, this ain’t right,’ ” said Burtschi, whose team led 45-21 at halftime. “When things got going, it was a little scary. Everybody was relaxed and confident.”

Three days later, Air Force led Colorado 35-11 at the break, the Buffaloes’ lowest first-half total in 26 seasons. Colorado actually led 4-0 before the Falcons went on a 22-point run. For the game, Air Force shot 13-for-25 on 3-pointers (52 percent) and led 75-32 before pulling its starters.

The bombardment continued three weeks later when Air Force leveled Wake Forest 94-58. The Falcons led by 24 at the break, shot 60 percent for the game and made 11 of 23 3-pointers while handing the ACC team its most lopsided loss since 1984.

“I tried everything,” Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “It didn’t make a difference.”

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