When Air Force lost its bubble battle in Boise last Wednesday, the Falcons lost that precious thing known as leverage. They're clearly behind Boise State in the Mountain West pecking order, and while teams – not conferences – earn at-large bids, Air Force does need to catch up to Boise State, a team that is right on the cut line at this point, with a 50-50 chance to Dance. That's where Air Force wants to be on Selection Sunday, March 17; it can't realistically hope for better odds than that.
In order to get back into at-large consideration, the Falcons need to be patient… and thread the needle over the next three weeks. This next week against Wyoming and Fresno State is an exercise in avoiding a bad loss, hopefully with minimal drama and strain. The following week, the Falcons will have to beat both San Diego State and New Mexico. Splitting those two games won't get Air Force to the tournament – not with 10 losses and those schedule-hurting wins against non-Division I teams or sub-200 RPI opponents. The week after the SDSU-UNM double, Air Force – if it is able to beat the Aztecs and Lobos – would then need at least one win in the Mountain West Tournament. If the Falcons can win each of their next five games – Wyoming, Fresno, SDSU, New Mexico, and the Mountain West quarterfinals – we can talk about an at-large bid. If Air Force doesn't win each of its final four regular season games, it will have to win the Mountain West Tournament to reach the field of 68.
The Cowboys are simply a depleted team right now, the Mountain West's version of what has happened to Mississippi State in the SEC. Wyoming watched star player Luke Martinez get suspended (frankly, he suspended himself) for causing serious bodily injury to another person in a wild after-hours bar fight just before a Jan. 2 game against Southern Methodist. In subsequent weeks, Leonard Washington – the team's second-best player – has been sidelined by a sprained ankle. He'll return for this game, but his effectiveness is likely to be limited. Larry Nance, Jr., the son of the 1984 NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, missed last week's game at San Diego State with flu-like symptoms. He was unsurprisingly rusty this past Saturday against UNLV. Head coach Larry Shyatt is trying to patch together a credible rotation each night, and he doesn't have the resources he needs to fend off the upper-division teams in a rugged and deep conference.
To illustrate how threadbare the Cowboys have been, simply consider that they allowed UNLV – an awful road team – to jog to a 23-point win in Laramie this past Saturday. Wyoming scored only 12 points in the first half. Four of its starters combined to hit just 4 of 32 field goal attempts, while Derek Cooke made 7 of 10 tries from the floor. Even with Washington returning to the lineup, this team just can't expect to get much production from its roster. Air Force – given the daunting nature of next week's schedule (at San Diego State, home against New Mexico) – needs to beat Wyoming while giving its starters as much rest as possible. This game against the Cowboys and Saturday's game in Fresno against the Bulldogs need to be won efficiently, so that the Falcons can be fresh for the "Judgment Week" part of their season.
WYOMING STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 51.3. Change: -3.7 percent (55 on Jan. 26, the last time these two teams played).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 31.8. Change: -1.3 percent (33.1 on Jan. 26).
Possessions per 40 minutes: 61.1. Change: -0.1 possessions (61.2 on Jan. 26).
Turnovers per game: 11. Change: -0.4 turnovers (11.4 on Jan. 26).
Field goal percentage defense: 42.2. Change: +2.4 percent (39.8 on Jan. 26).
Two-point field goal percentage defense: 46.2. Change: +3.4 percent (42.8 on Jan. 26).
Forward – Leonard Washington – Senior, 6-7, 230 2012-13: 13.8 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game, 2 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game, 2.1 blocked shots per game
Washington's scoring is down 0.5 points (14.3 points per game on Jan. 26). His rebounding is unchanged. His assists are down by 0.4 dimes per game (2.4 on Jan. 26). He's still averaging the same amount of steals. (His blocked shots were not tracked on Jan. 26.) He is Wyoming's best active player, with Martinez out of the picture. Will he be effective, though, and will his ankle enable him to make cuts and various basketball movements with the power and decisiveness he needs? Depending on how he reacts in the first 10 minutes of play, Air Force needs to deal with Washington intelligently. If he's on his game, the Falcons don't need to attack him, instead choosing to beat the Cowboys in other ways. In the first few possessions of the game, though, Air Force definitely needs to test Washington's capabilities.
Forward – Larry Nance, Jr. – Sophomore, 6-8, 210; 2012-13: 9.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg
Nance's scoring is down 1.2 points from Jan. 26 (10.9 per game at that time), and his rebounding is down 0.3 boards (7.2 on Jan. 26). Nance was sluggish on Saturday against UNLV. Again, that's understandable, given his recent bout with the flu. Wyoming is a bit unlucky in that this game – coming on a Tuesday and not on Wednesday, when MWC games are usually played – gives the Cowboys a comparatively short turnaround. Air Force needs to exploit this reality by hitting the Pokes hard in the early going.
Guard – Josh Adams – Freshman, 6-2, 175; 2012-13: 6.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg
Adams' scoring is down 0.4 points compared to Jan. 26 (6.6 per game at the time). His rebounding is up 0.1 boards per game (1.3 on Jan. 26). When Martinez went down, Adams and his backcourt mates needed to pick up the slack as scorers, but Adams certainly hasn't measured up.
Guard – Riley Grabau – Sophomore, 6-2, 170; 2012-13: 5.3 ppg, 2.6 apg
Grabau's scoring, as is the case with Adams, has decreased over the past month. The sophomore averaged 6.1 points per game on Jan. 26. His assist total is up a small fraction (0.1 assists) relative to Jan. 26. After playing Colorado State and Boise State, two teams with multiple jump-shooting threats, Air Force should find Wyoming's offense to be a lot less threatening.
Guard – Derrious Gilmore – Senior, 5-10, 170; 2012-13: 12.4 ppg, 2.5 apg
Gilmore is the one Wyoming guard who has elevated his game in Martinez's absence. His scoring is up 1.4 points per game since Jan. 26, when his points-per-game average stood at 10.8. His assists are down from Jan. 26, but only to a miniscule degree (2.6 at the time). Outside of Washington, Gilmore is the only other Cowboy the Falcons need to pay a lot of attention to when Wyoming has the ball.
Shyatt went deep into his bench against UNLV on Saturday, but that was with Washington out and Nance well below 100 percent. In the Pokes' previous game against San Diego State on Feb. 19, only eight players played. One should expect a seven-man rotation from Wyoming in this game, with Nathan Sobey and Derek Cooke, Jr. coming off the pine. Guard Jack Bentz, who has gotten some small amounts of playing time in recent weeks, might steal 10 minutes to pace the other players in the rotation. Cooke averages 3.7 rebounds per game, up 0.9 boards from Jan. 26. That's the only noteworthy statistical imprint left by any member of the Wyoming bench.
Keys to the Game
1) Take away Washington or Gilmore. Would it be nice to shut down both Washington and Gilmore, not just one of them? Sure. Moreover, Air Force might very well be able to do as much. However, let's keep the emphasis on containing one of those two players, if only because a greedy mentality might cause the Falcons' defense to take unnecessary gambles and get displaced. Air Force might want to think about game planning to stop Gilmore, due to the fact that Washington is returning from an injury.
2) Give the starters as much of a rest as possible. Air Force needs fresh legs and clear, relaxed minds for San Diego State and New Mexico next week. Winning this game with minimal investments of labor from the starters, especially Michael Lyons and Todd Fletcher (the two players who average more than 30 minutes per game), definitely matters. It's time to conserve some fuel before the final push to the postseason.