Sunday, January 20, 2008

New Mexico Review

A couple of hours before Air Force’s game at Wyoming on Wednesday, I told a Wyoming radio station that the Falcons could be very good when they were making shots.

It sounded like an incredibly obvious point – like saying you need to score more than the opponent to win. And one of the hosts of the program called me on it. He said making shots was important to the success of every team.

And he’s right.

But it’s especially important for Air Force.

The Falcons don’t have a 7-footer to whom they can dump the ball and hope for easy post-up buckets. They don’t run much, so they get few baskets in transition. And they don’t have very many players who can create a shot or get to the rim and finish with regularity.

So, more than most teams, Air Force must make shots – outside shots, specifically – to be successful.

Check this out:

In two conference victories …
v. UNLV: 61.8 FG%; 47.4 3-P%
v. Wyoming: 44.0 FG%; 48.1 3-P%

In two conference losses …
v. Utah: 31.4 FG%; 31.6 3-P%
v. New Mexico: 27.5 FG%; 26.1 3-P%

Other thoughts
-One of my questions for coach Jeff Reynolds after Saturday's loss was why he stuck with his regulars until the final horn.

The last 10 or so minutes – with New Mexico comfortably ahead – seemed like the perfect time to get some of the younger players on the floor in a road conference game. Especially considering Reynolds often talks about the need to find another reserve or two who can contribute. And because one of the few criticisms of the coaching of his predecessor, Jeff Bzdelik, was that Bzdelik often left starters in games too long. That could have contributed, critics said, to the late-season collapse last year. And it left many of the players who had to step into major roles this year woefully inexperienced.

When I asked Reynolds about it after the game, he had a very reasonable explanation. He said that while, yes, he had considered emptying his bench, he decided to use the final minutes of the game as a teaching experience. He called two timeouts late – including one with less than a minute to play that elicited boos from the crowd at The Pit – so he could point out what Air Force would do at those times if the game was closer. This is who we would foul, this is when we would foul, this is the play we would run, etc.

“I just felt like we wanted to try to learn even though we were losing,” he said. “I didn’t think our kids gave in. I thought with three minutes to go in the game, I thought we got our legs. We were running our offense harder. And maybe that was the fact that they weren’t playing as hard. I think that’s just the way it went.”

Again, an understandable explanation. And I admire the never-say-die, never-quit attitude that is displayed by fighting hard until the final horn

But if the Falcons happen to lose Tuesday to Colorado State, I don’t want to hear about how it was their third game in seven days. I don’t want to hear about a long road trip. I don’t want to hear about tired legs and fatigue.

There was an opportunity to give some guys who have been playing hefty minutes a chance to rest Saturday – let alone give seldom-used reserves a chance to play. Starter Anwar Johnson, who still is recovering from a bout with pneumonia (they had an oxygen tank on the bench for him at Wyoming), played 36 of 40 minutes Saturday – a team-high.

Now, it might turn out that the lessons learned by the regulars in the waning minutes of the game will pay dividends down the line. Maybe they learned something about the offense, the defense or themselves that will make a big difference Tuesday or later in the season.

But the fatigue excuse is off the table for Tuesday night.

-Through two weeks of conference play, two things stand out.

One: As written earlier this week, the league is wide open. And the eventual champ could have three, four – perhaps five – losses.

Two: Last year’s Air Force team would have dominated this league. Funny how entire leagues go in cycles. Lot of talent gone from last year.

-New Mexico’s J.R. Giddens may or may not make it at the next level. But there’s no doubting he has the tools. The spin move he made to get to the basket in the first half Saturday was stunning.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Aloha, Mr. Rabold

Air Force senior outside linebacker John Rabold recently returned to the academy from Hawaii, where he spent a week preparing for and playing in the Hula Bowl – a senior all-star game that acts in large part as a showcase for NFL scouts.

I spoke to Rabold this afternoon about his experience at the game.

Jake Schaller: What was it like at the Hula Bowl?
John Rabold: It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun out there. In the morning we had football practice and meetings and walk-throughs, but then by lunchtime we were done with the football aspects. We’d do community activities, sign autographs. But we were staying on the beach, so we got the opportunity to go to the beach almost every day.

JS: Where were you, exactly?
JR: We were in Honolulu, the Waikiki area. … It was great. The local people were really nice to us down there. We had all different types of food. But we had rice with about every meal so I’m laying off the rice a little now. We were having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

JS: How did you feel you measured up to the other players?
JR: I feel I measured up equally with the guys up there. When we first went up there it went through my head that I had been playing at an academy and people were saying that the Mountain West was not one of the top conferences in the country. But after playing up there and playing with some Mountain West people, I felt we were just as good or better than the people at the bigger, known schools.

JS: What was your interaction with pro scouts?
JR: Scouts were out there, and I talked to some of them. … They said they’d keep an eye on me and everything. They said they liked what they saw in me out there. They said I was faster than what they had suspected. And I was faster in practice than they thought I was. Practice was the key part. They looked at you more there than in the actual game. I’ve got a two-year commitment and they all know that, so I have to serve in the Air Force first and hopefully something will come up.

JS: Your teammate, Drew Fowler, will be playing in the East-West Shrine game Saturday. Did you share your experiences with him?
JR: I kept in touch with him. We talked about every day or exchanged text messages. I gave him a heads up, told him what to expect practice-wise and at all the meetings.

JS: Were you more encouraged about your pro prospects after the game?
JR: I was. I felt like I had a pretty good week of practice and played pretty well in the game. I thought I helped myself out there, and hopefully they saw I’m able to play and I’ll be willing to put in the hard work and make it to the next level. I think I did nothing but help myself.

JS: Will you be back to Hawaii?
JR: Most definitely. It was a great trip. I love the beach, so it definitely will be a trip I take in the future to get back there.

Wyoming Review

Just got to watch Eric Kenzik’s game-winning basket this morning on ESPN’s "SportsCenter." It was No. 2 on the show’s Top 10 plays.

As always, I was surprised to see Air Force highlights on the Worldwide Leader. It doesn’t happen too often.

After I got over that shock, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Kenzik’s cut to the basket and even more impressed by the assist Andrew Henke made. Great vision, and there was some heat on that pass.

That was a pretty big victory for the Falcons. On the road. Against a rival. In an arena where Air Force had won just two of its previous 18 games.

For a team that has little experience and had found little success away from Clune Arena prior to Wednesday, it should be a big-time confidence booster.

Quick Thoughts

-Through three games, Tim Anderson is the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year.

He’s averaged 17.7 points in conference play (tied for third in the league) on 53.3 percent shooting from the field (fourth-best in the league). And he’s played outstanding defense. Five charges taken against Wyoming? That has to be some kind of record.

Best of all, he’s shown a knack for knowing when to take control (see his step-back 3-pointer with 4:26 left in regulation when Wyoming was surging) and when to let others make plays (see the game-winning play in overtime).

He’d have his opponents’ vote. When I spoke to Wyoming’s Brad Jones before the game, Jones said he had “the utmost respect for Air Force, especially Tim Anderson."

“I got to hang out with him at media day, and I think he’s a stand-up guy and one of the premier guards in the league.”

-Air Force has to improve its free throw shooting. The Falcons made just 7 of 14 attempts from the line Wednesday night, and it nearly cost them the game.

-The Falcons desperately need some more help from their bench. Anderson played all 45 minutes Wednesday night, and freshman guard Evan Washington played 43. Last year’s late-season collapse probably had something to do with fatigue. I remember Matt McCraw playing every minute of the Falcons’ first four contests.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wild, Wild Mountain West

Just got finished watching UNLV absolutely pound BYU, 70-41.

That’s UNLV, the team Air Force handled on Saturday, beating the defending conference champs. Badly.

And prior to that, TCU overcame a 13-point halftime deficit to beat New Mexico at the buzzer, 74-72.

Three things jump out:

One, it’s more than clichĂ© this season when coaches talk about the importance of protecting their home courts. UNLV looked like a completely different team in Vegas than it did on Saturday at Clune Arena. More confidence shooting the ball, better defense, better intensity. The conference champ this season will have to be close to perfect at home.

Two, BYU’s Trent Plaisted had better figure out how to shoot free throws. One for 10? No matter how good he is in other facets of the game, that kind of percentage makes him a liability.

And three, this could be one wild year. You can drive yourself crazy by playing the “Team A beat Team B and Team C beat Team A, so Team C should beat Team B” game. But still, a look at scores around the conference seem to make Air Force’s prospects for shocking the league this season a whole lot more promising.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Anderson Named Player of the Week

Air Force senior guard Tim Anderson was named the Mountain West Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week today for his performance in the Falcons’ 65-53 victory over UNLV on Saturday.

Anderson scored a game-high 27 points, including 21 in the second half, on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor and 9-of-12 shooting from the free throw line. Anderson, who scored 14 straight points during one stretch of the second half, also had two steals, blocked a shot and drew a charge.

This is Anderson’s second player of the week honor this year. He shared it with San Diego State’s Kyle Spain on Nov. 12.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

UNLV Review

Amazing what a win can do.

Last week’s 22-point loss to Utah in Air Force’s Mountain West Conference opener seemed like a harbinger for a dreadful year. UNLV – the team picked to finish second in the conference – was coming to town and road games at two of the tougher venues in the league loomed thereafter.

An 0-4 start to conference play seemed possible – even likely – if the Falcons fell to UNLV, it said here in this blog.

But Air Force looked like a different team against the Runnin’ Rebels. Some of that had to do with playing at home, but more than that, it was the Falcons’ shooting and offensive execution. After the Falcons went 3 for 18 in the second half of their loss to Utah, Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said his players had open shots, they just didn’t make them.

After the UNLV game, I asked him whether the team’s success shooting the ball (Air Force shot a season-best 61.8 percent from the floor) could be explained simply by the team hitting shots or if the offense created better looks.

“I think it was a combination of we were a little bit more aggressive, but I think the flow of the game and the style of the defense dictated how we played, and we were fortunate to make some shots,” Reynolds said. “We made some tough shots and we made some open shots.”

Now, all of a sudden, players who had lost confidence – according to Reynolds – seem to be feeling pretty good. And don’t underestimate the importance of that for a team with little experience.

In addition, a quick look at scores around the league should brighten the outlook of Air Force fans. Wyoming is struggling and just got blown out by TCU (not sure what’s going on up in Laramie, but the Cowboys shouldn’t be playing this poorly – especially with the best backcourt in the conference). San Diego State lost earlier this week to Northern Colorado, a team the Falcons handled. And BYU was beaten soundly by Wake Forest.

Now, all that said, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I wrote in my Utah Review that despite how bad the Falcons looked, “it was just one game.”

Same idea works here.

Yes, Air Force looked very good Saturday, but it was just one game. I know UNLV was picked to finish second in the conference, but that was before the Runnin’ Rebels lost a pair of big men. Remember, UNLV lost four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team – as many as Air Force lost. And the Runnin’ Rebels are the worst shooting team in the Mountain West.

We’ll know a lot more in a week.

Other Quick Thoughts:
-Good news/bad news on the crowd.

Good news: The announced crowd of 5,146 was larger than I anticipated, and fans got behind the Falcons big-time. “There were stretches in the second half where it was as loud as I’ve heard it in Clune Arena,” junior Andrew Henke said.

Bad news: Pretty lame turnout by Section 8. Lots of empty seats in that end of the arena.

-I thought the new unis were sharp. Reynolds said he’d like to add another alternate uniform – perhaps black, perhaps silver. But the Falcons are 1-0 in gray. Maybe save those uniforms for special occasions, like the Notre Dame football team does with its green jerseys.

-Big-time kudos to Anwar Johnson for a courageous effort. I limited questions to him after the game because he really was struggling to speak. I wonder if he’ll be able to play this week. It might get to a point where he just has to shut it down for a game or two so he can get back to 100 percent.

-They were overshadowed by Tim Anderson’s 27 points and Keith Maren’s standout all-around play, but Henke made a number of great passes – particularly a dish inside to Anderson for a layup and also a pinpoint bounce pass to a cutting Eric Kenzik. Henke might have the best court vision on the team. It leads him to take some chances that backfire – see the full-court baseball pass that went out of bounds in the first half. But it also helps him make some big-time passes.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Carney Update

Before ESPN showed the replay of Shaun Carney’s gruesome knee injury that occurred late in the third quarter of the Armed Forces Bowl, announcers told viewers with queasy stomachs not to watch.

So those of you with queasy stomachs, skip the following quote.

“I was trying to plant my (right) foot and try to run over a linebacker,” Carney said of the play when he addressed the media today for the first time since immediately after the bowl game. “And at that time it was either a safety or a corner that hit my leg, and at the same time that linebacker that I was trying to run over hit me up top along with another defensive lineman from behind. So my leg went one way and my body went the other, and something had to give and it was my knee.”

The result of the collision described above, according to an MRI Carney received earlier this week at the academy, was a dislocated knee cap, damage to ligaments in the knee cap and ACL, MCL and PCL tears.


Carney said he knew it was serious immediately.

“When it happened, (trainers) were trying to do some tests on the knee … I just told them, ‘Guys, it’s gone. My knee is toast.’ I knew it,” Carney said.

Head trainer Tony Peck was fairly sure of the severity as well.

“Shaun’s a tough kid,” he said. “So you knew.”

Carney said Thursday he’ll have surgery on his ACL and PCL in about six weeks – though Peck said surgery for the PCL is not definite. The MCL heals by itself.

Peck said Carney – who came to today’s interview on crutches and uses a wheel chair to get to and from class – probably won’t be active for six or eight months. He said those rehabbing similar knee injuries typically don’t “feel like themselves” for about a year.

Carney said daily activities can be frustrating – though he’s had plenty of help from his family, fiancĂ©e and friends – and that it will be tough to stay off the golf course.

But the toughest part of the injury still was leaving the final game of his career before it was over.

“There was nothing more frustrating than leaving my teammates on the field and watching them battle Cal,” he said. “I felt like I definitely could have made a difference in that football game. It was hard to watch that lead slip away and that was the most frustrating moment I’ve had so far.”

Still, Carney will be able to finish school, graduate with his class and walk down the aisle for his June 28 wedding. Next year he’s slated to be back at the academy as a graduate assistant for the football team – which will benefit his rehab.

“I don’t think there’s any physical therapy staff in the country, in the Air Force, specifically, that can deal with me any better than these guys can,” he said.

As for that now infamous replay? Yes, Carney has watched it “a couple times.” His stomach didn’t turn over, he said.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I remember sitting back at the hotel (in Fort Worth) with my brother in my hotel room and it was on SportsCenter. And I wanted to watch it again, I wanted to see what happened and how it happened. Everyone was like, ‘Ewww.’ And I was more like, ‘Really?’ Just trying to figure out what exactly happened.”

Ollis to Throw Hat in Ring

Add tailback Jim Ollis to the list of Air Force senior football players who hope to play professionally.

According to Bruce Ollis, Jim’s father, Ollis is looking for an agent.

An Air Force policy announced last year states airmen who want to pursue professional sports careers – or other careers that bring positive attention to the Air Force – “must have served on active duty for at least 24 months.”

After two years, a player can apply through the chain of command to either have his service suspended or to be granted an early release if he has a pro contract. A player granted an early release would serve six years of reserve duty instead of the three years of active duty left in his commitment.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who spent four years coaching in the pros, said players could accrue leave “to still hit the minicamps and training camps and maybe play in some preseason games,” during their two years of active duty service.

Senior outside linebacker John Rabold, senior inside linebacker Drew Fowler and senior receiver/running back/returner Chad Hall all have expressed an interest in playing professionally. Rabold will play in Saturday’s Hula Bowl, and Fowler will play in the East-West Shrine game Jan. 19. Both games are senior all-star games that act as showcases for pro scouts.

Ollis, who spent most of his first three years at the academy serving as a backup quarterback, was moved to tailback by Calhoun prior to this season. He gained 682 yards (second-most on the team) on 106 carries (6.4 yards-per-carry) and scored six touchdowns. He ran for 138 yards, including a 71-yard score, in the Falcons’ upset victory over TCU. And in the Falcons’ final three games of the season, he rushed for 317 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Back to Work

Air Force returned to practice Tuesday, but junior forward Anwar Johnson did not participate. According to coach Jeff Reynolds, Johnson is “fighting a bout of pneumonia.” Johnson played a career-high 40 minutes in Saturday’s Mountain West Conference opener against Utah. …

Junior forward Matt Holland said the Falcons “still are confident in what we’re doing,” despite Saturday’s 22-point loss to Utah.

“It was a tough loss, but we had a good practice today, and I still feel like we’re getting better every day in practice,” He said. “We’re not backing down.” …

Freshman guard Evan Washington had no turnovers against Utah, one game after making seven against Wake Forest. But Reynolds said Washington “was not as aggressive as we wanted him to be at Utah.”

“So we’ve got to find a medium.”

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Utah Review

Yes, it was just one game. Yes, it was on the road. And, yes, the opponent was a much-improved Utah team that could challenge for the Mountain West Conference title this year.

But today’s 58-36 loss to the Utes does not bode well for the Air Force men’s basketball team.

Here is what should concern Falcon fans:

-Air Force scored just 36 points, including just 13 in a second half in which it made 3 of 18 shots from the floor. No matter how good Air Force’s defense is, 36 points are not going to cut it. Air Force has shooters, and it has an offense that should create open looks. The Falcons should be scoring more points.

-The turnovers. There were 14 today, and while that might not seem like a lot when compared with how much other teams turn the ball over, one must keep in mind that Air Force – because of its style of play – has fewer possessions than most of those teams. In the first half, eight of the Falcons' 28 possessions resulted in turnovers.

-It’s been written in this space before: There just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of fire on the floor. Being fiery is not a requisite for being a good player – former Falcon Dan Nwaelele was as quiet and soft-spoken as anyone in the Mountain West last year and yet he earned first-team all-conference honors. But he was surrounded by Jake Burtschi and Matt McCraw and others who had fire and moxie in excess. I'm just not sure if Air Force has anybody to fill those energizing roles. I haven't seen anybody take the team by its collective throat and will it to play harder and better. I think my colleague Milo Bryant put it best when he said this group might just be too nice.

Again, all that said, it’s just one game. It’s early. And this team is young. And inexperienced.

But to grow up fast, this bunch is going to need some positive experience. And the schedule doesn’t set up well for that.

Next Saturday the Falcons face UNLV – a team that seems to have reloaded and again could challenge for the conference title. After that it’s back-to-back games at Wyoming and New Mexico – two of the toughest places in the conference to play.

That makes 0-4 very possible before the Falcons play host to Colorado State.

AF-Utah: Halftime Update

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Air Force went to halftime trailing Utah, 29-23, at the Huntsman Center on Saturday in both teams' Mountain West Conference opener.

The Falcons held Utah – which came into the game hitting 50.2 of its shots from the field – to just 5-of-14 shooting from the floor. But the Utes converted 14 of 17 free throws, and the five baskets they made hurt. All five were 3-pointers, made by Utes senior guard Johnnie Bryant, who came off the bench to spark Utah.

Air Force again struggled with turnovers, giving up the ball eight times. Eight players scored for Air Force led by center Keith Maren, who scored six on a pair of 3-pointers.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Carney Update/Calhoun Thoughts

I’ve gotten a few e-mails regarding the status of Shaun Carney after his injury in Monday’s Armed Forces Bowl.

Here’s what I know:

He’s in Cleveland with his family for the remainder of winter break. As is typical in cases of potential ligament damage to knees, he is being treated for pain and swelling.

When he returns to the academy, according to Air Force sports information director Troy Garnhart, an MRI will be taken of his knee to see exactly what happened – though trainers believe it is a tear of both his MCL and ACL. Then, once swelling has gone down enough, Garnhart said, he’ll have surgery.

According to Garnhart, both head trainer Tony Peck and Dr. (Maj.) John Tokish, the head team physician, believe that while Carney’s injury is significant, he should have a full and normal recovery and not miss significant time at school.

I wasn’t able to get a lot of what coach Troy Calhoun discussed the day after the game in my story that ran in Tuesday’s edition of the Gazette. So I thought I’d drop in some random thoughts from him below.

On when the returning players will begin workouts: “They’ll start with (strength and conditioning coach Matt McGettigan) next week when they come back to school. I just think so much is done there not only physically, but team chemistry-wise. The way we approach lifting, I just think there are some pretty good bonds that are built there. And I think you invest as a group, you get to know each other as a group. For them, he will put them through the flexibility part of it, the strength part of it – core strength included. And we can never do too much speed work at this place. That’s anywhere, but certainly at the Air Force Academy.”

On possibly playing two quarterbacks next year: “When I was at Wake Forest, what we did is we had a guy that was a senior, and we tried to pick spots – eight to 12 plays, a couple series – where a younger guy got in there. … It helps you develop depth. So once that guy became a starter, he’d played. So the game was never too big for him. … I’d like to get to that point.”

On improving the defense: “You look at it this year defensively – when we played against teams maybe where their quarterback had more than 10 career starts, then there were some tough days. Even San Diego State in the (regular season) finale, we relinquished over 500 yards. And we’ve got to develop on that side of the ball. … I think you’ve always got to go back and look not only at the way you game plan but also personnel-wise. We’re going to heavily invest on the defensive side of the ball – that’s the way we’re going to play. And get to a point where we’re a dominant defense. … Everything we do practice-wise, we’ve got to make sure it’s set up to greatly enhance our defense. Even what we choose to do offensively has to be there for the benefit of our defense just because that’s what they’re going to go against all spring and August. That’s going to be our approach. I’m not saying offense isn’t important, because it is. I’ve just always felt that to be a really, really good football team you better be outstanding on defense. I think our best teams at the academy that’s been the case. “

On why he stresses defense: “When you’re disciplined on defense, and when you’re very sturdy on defense, just morale-wise it’s huge. … To me, I just think there’s so much there spirit-wise and discipline-wise. We’ll make strides there.

On trying newcomers at defense first: “What we need to do, if we bring guys in and we try them on the defensive side of the ball first, I think initially that’s where most big guys ought to start, and if they’re not going to crack the two-deep, then we’ll move them over to the offensive line. We bring a guy in at our place that’s got some foot quickness, we need to see can he play corner, can he play safety. I just think that’s where we have to start. And we did that as soon as I got here. … If a guy’s going to play 30 snaps on offense and he’s going to play 20 snaps on defense, we’ll probably put him on defense.”

(Check in tomorrow for thoughts on the Air Force men's basketball team's conference opener at Utah).