Air Force flying high with bid

By Erin Foley

If you ask ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, he will say the Air Force Academy does not belong among the NCAA tournament’s field of 65 teams. But if you ask Air Force head coach Jeff Bzdelik, he says that his team’s 24-6 record speaks for itself – and that he pays no attention to such comments.

“I have no time for negativity, no time for doubters,” said Bzdelik, the former Denver Nuggets head coach. “It’s easier for people to sit behind a camera or to sit behind a pen and criticize. Any time (in a tournament) teams will be left out.”

Air Force, making its second appearance in the NCAA tournament in the last three years, drew the 13th seed in the Washington, D.C. regional. The Falcons fell 63-52 to North Carolina in the first round in 2004 and before that made their first appearance in the “Big Dance” in 1962. After a heartbreaking 57-55 loss to Wyoming in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament last Thursday, the Falcons are looking to top an equally-down-on-its-luck team in No. 13 Illinois (25-6).

“They are a feisty group. They have a system and coming from an academy they are disciplined,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said.

With its Princeton-style offense of back door passes and inside-outside motion, Weber said the Falcons will force his team to “pass, catch and make some buckets.” However, the Illini are quite familiar with the Princeton format after facing both Georgetown and Northwestern earlier in the season.

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Since most of its baskets are from three-point range, Air Force will greatly rely on two of its heavy hitters: senior point guard Antoine Hood, an athletic guard who can create for himself, and junior forward Jacob Burtschi. Hood leads his team in scoring with 14.8 points per game, while Burtshi is averaging 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

The Academy used a veteran starting lineup of four juniors and one senior, four of which are averaging double figures in scoring, to lead the Falcons to non-conference wins against Miami (FL) and Georgia Tech.

“Hopefully, we can play with the desperate energy that got us to that point,” said Bzdelik, a graduate of the University of Illinois-Chicago whose entire base of family and friends lives in Illinois.

But with Illinois’ “awesome” defensive ability, Bzdelik said that Air Force must be “very special offensively” in order to control the game because Illinois ignites its offense with defense.

“It’s important for everyone to play well and for me to make the right decisions,” Bzdelik said. “Whether (each person) plays a minute or 20 minutes, we need to be operating on all cylinders.”

Although the Falcons look to control the game with their scoring, they also can rely on their smothering match up zone defense. For much of the season Air Force was ranked first in the nation in scoring defense as it allowed just 54 points a game — a major reason why it was able to finish tied for second with a 12-4 record in the Missouri Valley Conference. While Air Force’s main priority will be putting its guards on Dee Brown, it said it cannot look past other key players such as Brian Randle, Marcus Arnold and Jamar Smith.

“It’s not one-on-one, but they have other great players as well,” Hood said. “It comes down to commitment and rock-solid defense.”

With a 40-minute game against the heavily-conditioned Illini, Burtschi said Air Force’s motivation is to put themselves in a position in the last couple of minutes to win the game. Hood couldn’t agree more.

“We haven’t played in 30 games to let the Illini walk on Air Force; whether they respect us is on them,” Hood said. “They have their weapons, but we have ours too. It will be a clash of two styles of play, ultimately we control our style of play, and we’ll see what happens.”