When the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament begins on Thursday, the Air Force Academy Falcons won't be there. Despite a 23-8 record and "quality" wins over Stanford, Texas Tech and Long Beach State, the Falcons didn't make the field for March madness, and will (instead) host a first-round NIT game Wednesday night against Austin Peay.
In fairness, the Falcons didn't exactly endear themselves to the selection committee. After a 17-1 start, they lost seven of their final 13 games and made an early exit from last week's Mountain West Conference Tournament. During that stretch, the Falcons lost to such non-powers as Utah and Texas Christian, effectively ending hopes for an NCAA bid, and sealing their exile to the NIT.
Still, there's much to be said for a service academy that has enjoyed remarkable success in Division I basketball over the past 5 or 6 years, despite serious recruiting disadvantages and a series of coaching changes. It's almost a given that talented basketball players with a 1200 SAT score tend to gravitate toward Duke or North Carolina, not the Air Force Academy. Then, there's the little matter of being a college athlete in a demanding academic and military environment, where players are expected to meet the same rigorous standards as other students. And after graduation, any dreams of a pro career must be deferred at least five years, while the player fulfills his military service commitment.
Needless to say, the Academy hasn't exactly been a Mecca for great basketball players and teams. While the program's founder (legendary coach Bob Spear) managed two NCAA appearances in the early 1960s, it would be another 40 years before the Falcons returned to the Big Dance, under Princeton alum Joe Scott. His 2003-04 team won an at-large beth, after finishing with a record of 22-7, the first winning record in 26 years. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Scott followed the same path of other successful coaches in difficult recruiting situations, bolting for his alma matter after the '04 season. Scott's successor, Chris Mooney, did the same thing, departing for the head coaching job at Richmond after a single season.
Since 2005, Jeff Bzdelik has served as the Falcons' head coach, leading them back to the tournament a year ago. Bzdelik, who looks far younger than his 53 years, has more than a decade of NBA experience, including a stint as coach of the Denver Nuggets. When he inherited the Falcons, Bzdelik had the good sense to retain the "Princeton" offense of his predecessors, which emphasizes passing, precise cuts to the basket and high-percentage shots--the perfect style for a team often described as "too small" and "too slow" for a Division I program. But Bzkelik compensates for his team's (supposed) lack of athleticism by emphasizing hustle, defense and complete game preparation--almost to the point of paranoia.
Graduating four senior starters off this year's team, Bzdelik will have his work cut out for him next year. Until then, the Falcons have enough talent to make a deep run into the NIT. True, it's not the same thing as the Big Dance, but in an era when most college basketball players excell at only one thing, it's refreshing to see a team of true student-athletes extend their season by at least one more game. With a little luck--and a better performance than they exhibited in the Mountain West tournament--the Falcons might wind up in Madison Square Garden on 29 March, for the finals of the NIT.
Finally, the standard disclaimer: I am not a graduate of the Air Force Academy, having earned my commission the old-fashioned way, through 13 weeks at OTS.
ADDENDUM: I am not a bracket-ologist, and this will likely be my only post on the college basketball tournaments. But, like other casual fans, I am constantly mystified by the selection process, and some of the (apparent) politics that influence the process. For example, how can you justify Kentucky's selection for the tournament, other than (a) they go every year, and (b) wherever they travel, 40,000 members of the Wildcat Nation are sure to follow, clogging hotels and restaurants, and spending lots of cash. For the record, this year's UK squad had a solid RPI (#13 nationally, according to one service), but finished only 1-6 against Top 25 teams, had a 9-7 record in conference play, and lost in the second round of the SEC tournament to a Mississippi State team that's headed for the NIT. Without their "tradition" and name-recognition, the Cats might also be looking at an NIT bracket.