- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

DENVER — They wake before sunrise and march to breakfast. Their day is a regimented schedule of classes and military training. Friends and former cadets fighting in places like Iraq and Haiti are never far from their thoughts.

Basketball? That’s always been way down on the priorities list at Air Force.

Yet, the Falcons are in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 42 years. A group of undersized overachievers has the academy buzzing about basketball in a place long known for its football program.

“I think that reputation was the Air Force was a football school and basketball was nonexistent,” senior forward Joe Gerlach said yesterday. “We’re feeling great and people are starting to take notice of Air Force basketball.”

When Air Force (22-6) meets North Carolina (18-10) in the first round of the Atlanta regional Thursday in Denver, it will mark the culmination of easily the best season in the program’s 48-year history.

The Falcons set a team record for victories with their first winning season since 1977-78. Air Force was undefeated at home (13-0) for the first time after winning a combined 18 home games the previous three seasons.

The Falcons also won the Mountain West Conference regular-season title after going 9-33 the previous three years and finishing no higher than sixth in any conference. Just last week, Air Force cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history.

“From where we came from my first year here to what we’re at now, for this team being able to go out and play in the NCAA tournament, there’s no finer way to do it,” senior forward A.J. Kuhle said.

Despite a record-setting season, the Falcons weren’t a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

Sure, Air Force was one of the feel-good stories of the year, but there were plenty of reasons to keep the Falcons out: an RPI rating of 70; a strength of schedule ranked 236th; and 16 wins against teams ranked 200 or lower.

Add in a 60-48 loss to Colorado State in the first round of the conference tournament — Air Force’s 14th straight loss in conference tournament games — and there was a great deal of hand wringing.

Then the Falcons got a No.11 seed in the Atlanta regional.

“I thought we had shot ourselves in the foot with the tournament and, in my opinion, it was up in the air whether we’d get in or not,” Gerlach said. “It was a little nerve-wracking waiting for the announcement, not sure, knowing we didn’t play well and take care of our own business. We’re all thankful we got in.”

Air Force got in despite distinct disadvantages.

Because it is a military academy, Air Force can’t recruit players, nor can it accept transfers. The academy also has stringent entrance requirements and special waivers are needed for taller cadets who want to become pilots, further limiting the talent pool.

And even when they get to school, it’s not as if the main focus is basketball.

The day starts around 6a.m. with the cadets cleaning their rooms in case of random inspections, followed by a march to breakfast. They then head to four hours of classes that include such subjects as engineering, math and biology. A 20-minute lunch is next, followed by daily briefings.

The basketball players arrive to lift weights around 1:30p.m., then go through about two hours of practice. Dinner is at 6:30p.m., then the cadets head back to their rooms where they’ll study until as late as 1a.m.

“Whenever we’re going through daily life here at the academy, it’s very challenging in more ways than one,” center Nick Welch said. “Physically, because you’re sleep deprived — there’s different military aspects to that — and also you’re mentally drained for most of the day because of all the different things you need to do. And to go to practice, coach [Joe] Scott demands a lot from us each and every day.”

Scott is tough, but he’s found a way to turn what fellow coaches told him was the “graveyard of basketball” into the surprise of college basketball.

He’s done it with a system he learned as a player and assistant under Princeton’s Pete Carril.

The Falcons are small — Welch is the biggest at a lanky 6-foot-8 — but Scott filled the lineup with players who can dribble, shoot from long range and play length-of-the-court defense.

Air Force runs Scott’s patient, grind-it-out offense to perfection, using high picks and perimeter passing to set up 3-point shots or backdoor cuts. On defense, the Falcons dictate a slow-paced game with in-your-face pressure that starts under the other team’s basket.

Scott has used the system since he took the job at Air Force four years ago. He now has the players to make it work.

“When you do it at this level, people have to say ‘Man, they have good basketball players, they’re tough, they know how to play, they know how to win’ — all the same things they say about everybody else when those teams win,” Scott said.

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