|Dave Pilipovich has changed the basketball culture at Air Force -- both on and off the court. (US Presswire)|
When Dave Pilipovich was named the interim head coach at Air Force last season, it was a weird feeling for him.
He had been an assistant coach for the previous 26 years. But when head coach Jeff Reynolds was suddenly fired in early February, Pilipovich was thrown into the fire. The Falcons were on a six-game losing streak and had won eight Mountain West games in four seasons.
Obviously not the ideal situation for a first-time head coach.
“I just wanted to settle the ship, since it was really rocky at the time,” Pilipovich said Tuesday night over the phone. “Bam, this is where we were at. The dam was breaking, and I had to put my finger in all the holes. I just tried to regroup and get some normalcy.”
Pilipovich has done way more than simply keep Air Force together in the wake of a coaching change. Within two weeks of Pilipovich being promoted, the Falcons went on the road and beat Wyoming and then beat San Diego State at home. The Aztecs were the highest-ranked team that the Falcons had ever defeated, only the second win over a ranked team in the program's history.
While Air Force did lose the final four games of the season, the seeds were already planted for a major improvement in 2012-13. Pilipovich was given the head coaching job on a full-time basis, and the Falcons would return five seniors.
“It made the kids believe. They could go on the road and beat a good team, they could beat a ranked conference team at home,” he said. “It gave them some belief. We carried that into the offseason.”
Three months into this season, Air Force is clearly in a better place than it was 12 months ago. The Falcons have won three in a row and sit at 3-2 in the Mountain West. They own wins over Boise State and Wyoming and are only one game out of first place in the conference.
Air Force is no longer a team that opponents circle on their calendar as an easy game, either. The Falcons have one of the best scorers in the league in Michael Lyons, a player who can create his own shot in end-clock or end-game situations. They constantly have at least four shooters on the court at one time, which creates matchup problems for most opponents.
Most impressive, though, is the philosophy change on the offensive end. Last season, Air Force scored 70 or more points just four times against Division I competition. This year, the Falcons have already hit that mark nine times -- including scoring 91 and 90 points in back-to-back games last week against Boise State and New Orleans, respectively.
“We still run the Princeton offense, but we made an emphasis to get it out on makes and misses and push it up the floor,” Pilipovich said. “Last year, we struggled to score. We thought, ‘What if we get it down and have open shot?' We felt, ‘Let's go.' They like to play better that way, anyway.”
If it looks like Air Force is having more fun playing this season, you're probably right. And it's not just because of the up-tempo strategy.
Pilipovich said he has tried to give the players more ownership of the program this year. If the plays are worn down from the daily life of a cadet, he doesn't try to force them into a two-hour practice. For example, they recently went bowling instead of practicing. They do days of strictly shooting and lifting.
Last week, the players seemed tired after the game against New Orleans. The coaching staff brought the players in -- and instead of practice, they ordered chicken and waffles, and watched a couple of minutes of film.
“We take ourselves too seriously as coaches,” Pilipovich said. “I just like to have fun.”
The winning can't hurt, either.
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