Paul Klee: All things considered, "Air Force 81, UNLV 58" should be impossible
DENVER — Before I even finished the question, Dave Pilipovich stifled a laugh.
Thankfully, since the Air Force coach is a nice guy, he was laughing with — not at — me.
You know that Air Force isn't supposed to beat UNLV by 23 points, right?
"Yes, I'm aware," Pilipovich said.
He's aware, because in 1980, just as UNLV was rip-roaring into the glory years of Runnin' Rebel hoops under Jerry Tarkanian, Pilipovich went to Las Vegas. He was 16 or 17 and an aspiring basketball coach. He knew a guy in Vegas — don't we all, coach? — who could get him in the door to the practice gym, and Pilipovich snuck his way into a rec league with the Rebels. They had nine players. They needed a 10th.
"I was the in-bounder," Pilipovich said Thursday morning. "I don't think I ever took a shot."
His mother told him to pursue his basketball dream. His father told him not to call in a month when he was broke and homeless.
"I was thinking I was going to UNLV to be a manager," Pilipovich added. "I wanted to learn from the best — Coach Tarkanian."
So, yes, he is aware. He is aware certain things in sports aren't supposed to happen, that the system is designed in a way they won't happen, that when they do happen you better be sure to write a column about it in case they don't ever happen again.
One of those things happened Wednesday night at Clune Arena: Air Force 81, UNLV 58.
Try telling 1990 You that Air Force beat UNLV by 23 points in a basketball game. He or she is going to laugh like Pilipovich laughed at me. A basketball program that gave us Larry Johnson, Armen Gilliam and Stacey Augmon isn't supposed to lose to a basketball program that gives us jet pilots and national security. Those are the rules. It doesn't happen.
"I was in Denver when UNLV won (the NCAA title in 1990)," Pilipovich said. "For the Air Force Academy to play UNLV and win by a margin like that is pretty neat."
Oh, this wasn't a seismic upset. Air Force was favored by four. That's not the point. The point is that this was the craziest score you'll see in a crazy-good season for college basketball. The point is that media place too much emphasis on March Madness when the players still care deeply about conference games. The point is that in 20 years UNLV will have it rolling again and Hayden Graham, a senior who led Air Force with 19 points, can tell his kids about that time he beat UNLV by 23 points. The point is that Air Force had lost six straight games.
"And our guys didn't throw in the towel," Pilipovich said. "That feels good, because it means they bought in to what we worked on in practice on Monday and Tuesday."
Think of all the things that must happen for this to happen. UNLV (10-18, 4-11) must be down. It is way down, the worst team in the Mountain West, and that has nothing to do with first-year coach Marvin Menzies, who was set up to fail this season. Air Force (11-17, 4-11) must be capable. The Falcons have had their own struggles, but they've been honest struggles, with eight conference losses by single digits.
That's the small picture.
Here's the big picture: UNLV still has more NCAA tournament berths in the past decade (six) than Air Force has in its basketball history (four). UNLV still has a practice facility the Denver Nuggets would drool over, and when Air Force practiced there, one player called it "the Taj Mahal of practice gyms." UNLV can still tell recruits it produced the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft four years ago — the Falcons have never had a draft pick — while Air Force recently lost a 6-foot-7 recruit out of Ohio because he once was diagnosed with asthma.
"His dream was to fly," Pilipovich said. "But he was disqualified because he didn't fit the academy's health requirements."
So, yeah, this isn't supposed to happen. But the best part is how it happened. One year ago, Air Force went to UNLV and got drilled, 100-64. UNLV's coach, Todd Simon, ran up the score.
"They pressed us to the last minute," Pilipovich said.
Then on Wednesday, Air Force had a 27-point lead — in a basketball game against UNLV — when Pilipovich began to run clock and sub out his starters with roughly 5 minutes left.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," he said.
That's supposed to happen.