San Diego is a Navy town.
About 80,000 military personnel are stationed in the county between the Navy and the Marines. Perhaps, this is why the Air Force Academy has found the area so inhospitable over the years.
Beginning in 1973 and becoming nearly an annual tradition since 1981, the Falcons have defeated the Aztecs six times in 39 attempts when playing in America’s Finest City. Unfortunately for the SDSU, this season’s series with the Air Force will not occur at home. Instead, the Aztecs travel to Colorado Springs, where they have not found the same success.
All-time, the Aztecs are 59-24 in the series but are only 21-17 at Clune Arena.
In the Fisher/Dutcher era, SDSU has a losing record there, 9-11. The results since 2000 should be enough to suggest the obvious: this should be a competitive, low scoring series. As is the case most seasons, on paper, SDSU should have little trouble with the much smaller, less athletic Falcons, but history has shown this trip to be much more difficult for the Red and Black.
SDSU Results at Air Force in the Fisher/Dutcher Era:
2000 Loss 63 – 55 2001 Win 62 – 48 2002 Loss 67 – 54
2003 Win 63 – 48 2004 Loss 61 – 49 2005 Loss 62 – 50
2006 Loss 65 – 62 2007 Loss 56 – 51 2008 Loss 46 – 43
2009 Win 61 – 44 2010 Win 61 – 42 2011 Win 70 – 58
2012 Loss 58 – 56 2013 Loss 70 – 67 2014 Win 79 – 72
2015 Win 77 – 45 2017 Loss 70 – 67 2018 Win 67 – 56
2019 Loss 62 – 48 2020 Win 89 – 74
Three Keys to Victory
1. You have now crossed over into … The Twilight Zone
For the first time all season, the Aztecs’ offense will play a large game against a zone defense. The Falcons employ a 3-2 zone, with three perimeter and two interior defenders. Zone defenses can hide poor defenders and are often used — as will be the case Friday — by teams with less athleticism. How will SDSU attack the zone is the first key to victory.
In addition to hiding players on defense or compensating for lack of athleticism, zones also allow for more of a scripted game compared to the man to man. That is, the holes in a zone are known beforehand — in this case, the area around the free-throw line and the corner threes. In theory, a coach can decide ahead of time the shots he or she is willing to give up and which players will take those shots.
For example, Air Force might prefer Nathan Mensah catching an entry pass at the foul line, being forced to turn and shoot with smaller guards hounding him from all sides than allowing Mensah to work in the low post. Or they might prefer Lamont Butler or Keshad Johnson shooting open threes in the corner rather than having to chase Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez around screens.
On the other hand, zones make teams susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds. Instead of boxing out the player, they are guarding in man to man defense, defenders playing zone must first locate the offensive player in their area before putting a body on him, which is more difficult to do. Likewise, Zones can be attacked by ball movement and dribble penetration, which opens up cracks in the defense as defenders rotate.
Above all, “shooting teams out of the zone” is the surest way SDSU can take advantage when Air Force plays in the 3-2. In some regards, this defense is a gamble. If the Aztecs shoot well from three, the Falcons will be forced to guard more man to man. On the other hand, if State is cold from the outside, will they continue hoisting up threes or have the patience to attack the zone’s other vulnerabilities?
2. Playing 40 minutes
Air Force is 2-6 in the conference. In their six losses, they have been defeated by an average score of 77.3 to 57.3. Their smallest margin of defeat was 11 against Boise State. In their two wins, they were down by eight and nine points at the half but were able to claw back into the game and pull out victories in the end.
The Aztecs are coming off two losses at Utah State. The pride of the players in the program should lead to an intense first half Friday. If this season’s trend continues, SDSU should have a lead at the half. Air Force has only led at the half once in conference play — the above mentioned 11 point loss — and have trailed by an average of eight at the break.
Given the nature of the school they attend and the life the cadets are preparing for, it is unsurprising the character, and resilience Air Force shows every game they play. Still, this weekend, there will come a time when the Aztecs will be tempted to relax a little bit to expect a victory instead of giving focus and effort to earn it. Air Force already has two comeback wins. Unless SDSU can play a full 40 minutes, they could easily become the Falcons’ third.
3. Playing at altitude
It was not until after the Summer Olympics were played in Mexico City in 1968 that athletes’ performance in altitude became a focus of study. Various theories have been offered on how to maximize performance at a higher elevation. The consensus is living at a higher altitude is the best to prepare for playing at elevation. Short of this, it takes two weeks for the body to acclimate to the rarified air. The Aztecs, of course, have neither of these options available to them.
Despite the team’s attempt to “beet” the altitude, Nathan Mensah was not at full strength the second game against Utah State. Now, the Aztecs have to travel to their third and fourth games in rarified air in less than the time science says is needed to prepare to play in the climate. How will they handle moving from sea level to altitude, back to sea level, and again back to altitude?
Over fifty years of research has not provided many (any?) studies on the specific issues SDSU faces. There are few opportunities to study teams who live at sea level with repeated travel to elevation, who play over multiple days. Even the science behind beet juice is an extrapolation drawn from other studies and not the specific challenge the Aztecs must overcome.