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(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Compared to its 10-win 2009-10 season, Air Force did a lot of things better a year ago.
It scored about seven more points per game and shot a better percentage from the field. Even though it allowed about two more points per contest, fourth-year coach Jeff Reynolds thought at times his team played better defense.
Still, the Falcons were last in the Mountain West in rebounding (28.7 rpg) and in rebounding margin (-6). Rebounding is always a challenge at Air Force because it's often one of the smaller teams in the nation. You don't see a lot of 7-foot fighter pilots.
"We just did not rebound the ball on a consistent enough basis to win a few more games," Reynolds said.
Still, Air Force won 16 games, which tied for the most in Reynolds' four years, and the six conference victories were the second most under his leadership after just one the previous two seasons. The Falcons played in the postseason for the first time since 2007-08.
Air Force returns three starters and 11 lettermen, which includes half of its scoring production and 45 percent of its rebounding.
The top player is junior guard Michael Lyons (13.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg). The 6-6 Lyons was a third-team All-Mountain West pick last season, and Reynolds thought he could have easily been a second-team selection. Lyons led Air Force in scoring and is one of the better athletes to come through the program in recent memory.
"I don't know if underrated is the right word to describe Michael; probably misperceived," Reynolds said. "He can score the ball in a number of different ways. He can make a three or take you off the bounce. He really got better last year in his one-dribble pull-up -- sort of his in-between game. He's got to get stronger, and hopefully [he did] that this summer."
Air Force must replace the scoring from three senior perimeter-oriented players -- 6-4 Evan Washington (7.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), 6-5 Derek Brooks (10.0 ppg) and 6-6 Tom Fow (11.8 ppg), who led the Mountain West in three-point shooting (.459). No returning player averaged more than 7.5 points per game, and someone needs to help Lyons offensively.
Reynolds said 6-5 senior Taylor Stewart (3.2 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and 6-6 junior Mike Fitzgerald (3.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg) need to step up after playing in 32 and 28 games last season, respectively. At 6-6 Adam Brakeville played less than three minutes per game last season. True freshman Chris Carter joins the team after he led the Air Force Prep School last season in scoring (11.8 ppg) and assists (3.6 apg). Air Force may also get help from 6-5 true freshman Max Yon out of San Antonio.
Junior Todd Fletcher (4.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.8 apg) returns at point guard. The 6-2 Fletcher has played since he was a freshman and has shown steady improvement.
"I think Fitzgerald and Fletcher are the players that have to score points for us," Reynolds said. "At this point, that's our missing link, especially because of the loss of Fow and Brooks. Both could really put it in the basket for us."
What happens inside for Air Force is the big uncertainty.
At 6-10, junior Taylor Broekhuis (7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is a returning starter, and Reynolds was pleased with the weight and strength Broekhuis added over the summer.
The team suffered a blow when 6-7 forward Zach Bohannon (4.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg) didn't return for his junior season. He decided military life wasn't for him, transferred to Wisconsin and walked on to the basketball team.
"Anytime you lose a guy that played 16 minutes a game for you in a back-up role, it's a hit to the team," Reynolds said. It certainly is going to open up an opportunity for someone else, but yet you miss that experience. He played as a freshman and played more minutes as a sophomore. It was a surprise, and there was no indication it would happen."
Still, Reynolds said only three players have left Air Force in last six years because they didn't like the rigors of military life. Most programs would love to have that low of a turnover rate.
Reynolds will have to rely on some unproven youngsters inside. The top freshman heading into last season was 6-8 forward Ethan Michael, but he suffered a knee injury during basic cadet training and didn't play. Michael has good size at 220 pounds and is someone Reynolds remains optimistic about.
Another 6-8, 220-pound sophomore forward -- Chase Kammerer -- will compete for playing time after playing only in one game last season.
Remember, Air Force does not redshirt its student-athletes.
Seven of Air Force's 11 incoming freshmen are from its prep school, and a couple that could see time inside include 6-5 Delovell Earls and 6-7 Colt Barnhill. Earls can also play along the perimeter. The tallest player in Air Force's recruiting class is 6-9 in-state product Brian Davidson.
"We've got more size inside, we just need some of these young guys to step up," Reynolds said.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
If Air Force can find some post players to go along with Broekhuis, and Lyons doesn't have to do all the scoring on his own, it should be in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West again this season. Air Force can't win by scoring 80 points a game, but it can win by scoring in the mid-60s as long as the defense remains solid. The Falcons are normally among the top half in the conference in scoring defense, and were third last season (65.1 ppg).
"We have some expectations with this group, which is a little bit different than in the past," Reynolds said. "How we handle those expectations will indicate how we do. I know our non-league schedule will be a little tougher.
"Somebody asked me where I thought we would be picked in the league. I told them I didn't think it would be the same as last year, which was last. I don't think we'll be in the top three or four, but I don't think we'll be picked last, either."
Air Force has a solid group of five juniors who really should blossom as seniors. If some role players step up and some freshmen grow up fast, a similar finish to last season, as well as another postseason appearance, are within the Falcons' grasp.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.