Air Force Basketball: Previewing the Falcons’ 2020-21 Season
Inexperienced Falcons picked 10th in MW preseason poll
Fresh faces abound in the lineup, but a familiar presence returns to the sideline.
2019-20 AT A GLANCE
- 2019-20 Record – 12-20 (5-13, 9th in MW)
- Lost to San Diego State in MW quarterfinals
- Final DPI Rankings – #210 in nation, #10 in MW
- Offseason Departures – Lavelle Scottie (15.7 PPG), Ryan Swan-Ford (12.5 PPG), Caleb Morris (8.9 PPG), Sid Tomes (6.9 PPG), Isaac Monson (1.5 PPG), Lesean Brown (0.9 PPG)
2020-21 AT A GLANCE
- Head Coach – Joe Scott (5th year at school; 51-63 record at school from 2000 to 2004)
- Assistant Coaches – Sydney Johnson (Associate Head Coach), David Metzendorf (asst.), Jared Czech (asst.), Maj. Marc Holum (asst.), Cam Griffin (asst.)
- A.J. Walker, G, Jr. – 11.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.1 APG
- Chris Joyce, G, Sr. – 6.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 APG
- Ameka Akaya, G/F, Sr. – 3.8 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.5 APG
- Abe Kinrade, F, Jr. – 2.3 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.3 APG
- Keaton Van Soelen, F, Sr. – 3.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.5 BPG
- Nikc Jackson (F, Soph.), Mason Taylor (G, Soph.), Carter Murphy (G, Soph.), Cameron Vander Zwaag (G, Soph.), CJ Haut (F, Soph.), Nick René (G, Jr.), Simon Banks (G, Soph.), Solomon Pierre-Louis (G, Soph.)
2020-21 TEAM OUTLOOK
The Falcons are flying under everyone’s radar as they enter the first season of the New Joe Scott Era in Colorado Springs. Ahead of last week’s Mountain West virtual media day, pollsters pegged Air Force as the tenth-best team in the league, beating out only San Jose State to stay one rung above rock bottom. But “new” head coach Joe Scott – who returns to Air Force more than 15 years after his first stint with the team, which culminated in an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004 – could not care less about preseason projections.
“I don’t look at polls,” Scott said during his media day interview. “I do know we’re picked at the bottom. When I was here before, we were picked last every year. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how good we get at what we do, how important what we do is to us, how much we care about what we do, and how much it’s the only thing that we focus on.”
Between appointments at the head of the Falcon bench, Scott spent time as the head coach of his alma mater Princeton (2004-07) before returning to The Centennial State to lead Denver (2007-16). After the Pioneers moved on from Scott, the ball-screen guru worked with Bill Carmody at Holy Cross (2016-17) before getting his first taste of high-major basketball as an assistant under Tom Crean at Georgia (2018-20).
After four years away from head coaching, Scott feels well prepared to return to his old stomping grounds on the Air Force sidelines. With that question to put to rest, the focus then shifts the roster. The Falcons lost six players in the offseason, including four starters who accounted for roughly 60% of the team’s scoring. Chief among those losses are Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan-Ford, but the experience and contributions from Caleb Morris and Sid Tomes will be sorely missed as well.
A.J. Walker tells me that he will return to Air Force next season and will not transfer.
Averaged 11.1 PPG last season.
Huge news for Joe Scott.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) June 5, 2020
The program was able to maneuver away from a total nosedive, though, as lead guard A.J. Walker announced in June that he would be returning to the Academy for his junior season after testing the waters of the transfer portal. Still, there are four other spots to fill on the court, so the only way forward for Air Force is to espouse a “next man up” philosophy.
Before turning to those “next men”, though, Walker deserves a bit more discussion. The San Antonio native stepped up as a solid third scoring option for Air Force last season, starting in 29 of 32 games and displaying a consistent ability to knock down three-pointers (40.3% on 119 attempts) that will serve him well in Joe Scott’s offense.
Walker also led the team with just over three assists per game, ranking 12th overall in the Mountain West in that category. With a much larger share of the ball-handling duties coming his way, though, expect his statistics to make a healthy jump. That makes him the clear favorite among current Falcons to earn All-Mountain West accolades following the season, and the added usage could be enough to get him a nod on one of the second- or third-team lists.
But past the junior guard, the picture gets murkier for Air Force as to who will step up. As for who will be called upon, Joe Scott provided a clear view at media day, noting that the team’s returning upperclassmen – Chris Joyce, Keaton Van Soelen, Ameka Akaya, and Abe Kinrade – will be asked to step up to the plate.
“Those four guys, [despite] having played and had some minutes, they have not been counted upon,” Scott said at media day. “They were not the ones counted upon to make Air Force do well. That’s the question for us. That maturity level, the acceptance of that responsibility, and how quick they come to know what that really means. When you go from being the eighth guy to the fourth guy, your responsibility level goes up. We’re addressing it already with those guys to get them mentally ready to handle that maturely, the right way, and to really be accepting of having that responsibility on their shoulders.”
From a statistical standpoint, Joyce, a senior guard, appears the most obvious candidate to step up as a second scoring option behind Walker. Last season, Joyce played in 29 games and started 13 for Dave Pilipovich, shooting a respectable 35% from beyond the arc in the process. He is a big guard and a capable rebounder as well, so if he is able to maintain his accuracy and tenacity for going after the ball, Joyce should have no problem staying on the court for Scott.
After Walker and Joyce, it is unclear which of Air Force’s remaining starters will prove to be the most impactful. Keaton Van Soelen will likely log serious minutes as the team’s center, but as he stands just 6’7”, he will need to make the most of his athleticism to keep up with the bigger, stronger bigs in the Mountain West. The senior has shown some flashes of doing just that, though, including during last year’s upset of Utah State and their star center, Neemias Queta.
— Stadium (@Stadium) January 8, 2020
Backing up Van Soelen in the frontcourt will likely be senior swingman Ameka Akaya and junior forward Abe Kinrade. Akaya got some good run at the end of last season, eventually making 17 appearances and he has logged double-digit scoring performances four times over the past two seasons. While he is not much of a volume shooter from deep, it should be noted that Akaya has knocked down 13 of his 27 career three-point attempts (48.1%) at Air Force.
As for Kinrade, the junior forward notched 27 appearances and two starts last season but saw limited minutes in those games. There is a good chance that Kinrade will have the least impressive statistical profile, but he can still contribute in ways that may not appear in the box score. Especially in an offense like Scott’s predicated so heavily on off-ball movement, experience and IQ become even more important than normal.
On the bench, there are plenty of interesting, if untested, options. Sophomore forwards Nikc Jackson and CJ Haut seem good bets to be some of the first names called off the bench given the lack of size in the projected starting lineup. Both players stand at 6’8” and have a considerable weight advantage over Van Soelen and Kinrade. At the guard position, there is also plenty of depth, which will prove helpful as everyone takes on more minutes.
Sophomores Mason Taylor and Carter Murphy could be the most talented of the bunch, while Cameron Vander Zwaag, Pierre Solomon-Louis, Nick Rene, and Simon Banks are relatively unknown quantities at this stage. But if any of them can shoot, pass, screen, and defend with intensity and heart, they’ll surely find favor in Joe Scott’s lineup card.
It may not be the flashiest roster in the league, nor the most experienced, but Scott is no rookie and may benefit from having something of a blank slate with which to work. Walker has all the makings of taking a star turn in 2020-21, but the big question is which Falcons will join him in his flight.
2020-21 SCHEDULE OUTLOOK
(Note: As of this writing, the school’s athletics website does not have any games listed for the 2020-21 season.)
Aside from issues of who will step up on the court, equally unsettled are Air Force’s affairs off of it. Throwing in an unexpected wrench is a spike in COVID-19 infections on campus, which caused the Air Force Academy to pause team activities in all sports on November 5. At media day last week, Joe Scott addressed the stoppage.
“There is a pause, obviously, with the football games getting canceled. We are able to do certain things, but we are, within the campus community, trying to get a handle on health and safety on campus being a priority,” Scott said during his virtual interview. “This year, that’s going to be an ongoing thing throughout the season, and we just have to be able to adjust, adapt. Hopefully that’s given us some experience, so that if something happens, we’ve already dealt with it. I know our administration is doing a really good job with that and we’re trying to ensure the health and safety of the cadets, cadet-athletes, and the community at large on campus.”
Assuming no cancellations, the Falcons’ non-conference schedule includes a neutral-site matchup with Seattle in Las Vegas on November 30 and a home game against Lamar on December 5, according to The D1 Docket. There were murmurs that Air Force might be featured in one of the “Bubbleville” pods at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. However, as noted by Rocco Miller, the Falcons were not included when the schedule for the event was released. The team had previously been linked to an event in San Juan, Puerto Rico with Southern Illinois, Florida Altantic, and Hofstra, but those games were canceled long ago.
As for the conference season, if the preseason media poll is to be believed, then Air Force is going to struggle mightily. They could find themselves physically outmatched with bigger teams such as San Diego State, Boise State, and Utah State, while perhaps not having the same quickness as others like Colorado State and UNLV. They should be able to compete well with the rest of the league, though the ceiling for teams like Wyoming, New Mexico, and Fresno State are likely higher than the Falcons’. That means Air Force could end up in a dogfight with San Jose State at the bottom of the standings.
But remember: Joe Scott doesn’t read the polls. His litmus test for success is not in what other people think, but in the heart he sees his players showing as they deal with adversity.
“We’re gonna get punched in the face,” Scott said last week. “Things aren’t always gonna go well. It’s just gonna be, ‘How tough are we? How much do we stay with it? And how much do we keep knowing it’s about us and how much we care about what we’re doing?’ If we can do that,” Scott continued, “I like our team. We’ll take our chances.”
The coach also offered a summary of what he expects from his team.
“I know one thing: we’re going to be playing to win here at Air Force. Every time we step on the court, we’re gonna play to win,” Scott explained. “We’re gonna play to win for 40 minutes and so long as I see that, then I know that we’re on our way to playing Air Force basketball.”
If there is anyone who knows about Air Force basketball, it’s Joe Scott. The last time he was roaming the sidelines at the Academy, he had just gotten done turning the Falcons into an NCAA Tournament program.
While that goal is unrealistic for 2020-21 – the team will likely finish near the bottom of the league – it would be foolish to think that Joe Scott won’t squeeze every last ounce of talent out of this roster.
Andrew Dieckhoff (@andrewdieckhoff) is a USBWA member writing about college basketball for Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. He is also the creator of the Dieckhoff Power Index basketball analytics system and provides analytics coverage for Heat Check CBB. Andrew is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate of Portland State University. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.