Sports Outside the Beltway

Air Force Passes Muster as At-Large Entry

Lee Jenkins thinks Air Force deserves to be in the Big Dance.

The hard-liners who say Air Force does not belong in the N.C.A.A. tournament point to the team’s strength of schedule, rated 158th by the computers. The sentimentalists who say Air Force does belong in the N.C.A.A. tournament also point to the team’s strength of schedule, starting every day at 6 a.m.

That is when the Air Force Falcons put on their uniforms — sometimes dress blues, sometimes fatigues, sometimes flight suits.
Most of their sport is still asleep. Generally, college basketball players are like any other college students, hitting the snooze button and skipping breakfast. At Air Force, players march with their squadron to the mess hall for a buffet of eggs, potatoes and orange juice. They need a head start. Most players take six classes each semester, including Practical Advanced Aeronautical Engineering. They spend the summer flying planes and jumping out of them. They participate in combat survival training and ponder whether they will be sent to Iraq after graduation. If time permits, they manage to shoot some hoops.

Of course, the N.C.A.A. tournament selection committee is not supposed to take curricular activities into consideration. In theory, the selection process is devoid of emotion, based mainly on power ratings and conference indexes. But by selecting Air Force as an at-large entry, the committee recognized a program that faces some of the stiffest challenges in college basketball, even if those challenges are not reflected in the Falcons’ strength of schedule.

Air Force is playing under its third coach in three years. Most members of the team did not get a scholarship offer from another Division I college. A few did not even start in high school. Yet they are achieving more than any basketball team from a service academy has since David Robinson was throwing down dunks for Navy. Air Force is seeded 13th in their bracket, the lowest of any at-large entry, prompting inevitable backlash. The Falcons (24-6, 12-4 Mountain West Conference) have been criticized for playing too soft a schedule, for losing in the first round of the conference tournament, for taking a bid away from a more deserving team.

“I think it’s funny when people hate on us,” Antoine Hood, an Air Force guard, said Wednesday. “We do so much more than your average college basketball player.” Take, for instance, the week that Hood was ordered into a forest with a rabbit, a chicken and nothing else. He had to sustain himself for eight days on only the rabbit and the chicken — killing them, skinning them, cooking them. “You call your boys at other schools and they tell you about the parties,” Hood said. “You don’t want to make those calls too often.”

Jeff Bzdelik, the Air Force coach, might have the toughest sell in the country. His recruiting pitch has to go something like this: Come to an isolated academy in Colorado Springs that is 10 percent female, does not allow underclassmen to be off campus after 7 p.m. on weekdays and requires a permission slip to wear a T-shirt to a football game. Graduate and begin a mandatory five-year military obligation, leaving little chance to ever play professional basketball.

The few who signed up for the deal will face fourth-seeded Illinois (25-6, 11-5 Big Ten) on Thursday in a first-round game in San Diego. “Most of us know that basketball will only take us so far,” forward Jake Burtschi said. “We are setting ourselves up for something more.”

Uncommon foresight is required. Air Force routinely loses recruits to Division III programs. They lost one head coach, Joe Scott, two years ago to Princeton. They lost another, Chris Mooney, last year to Richmond. Princeton, with its high academic standards, can seem a difficult place to recruit, but “it’s still a lot easier than at Air Force,” Scott said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

True enough. There’s no doubt Service Academy life is something unique in college athletics.

Of course, most hoopsters at the big schools won’t be receiving an active duty commission, either. It’s not entirely clear why the obstacles cadets endure have a bearing on whether they should ace another, more talented basketball team out of the NCAA tourney.

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