Air Force Embracing New York, NIT Opportunity

Monday, March 26th 2007, 6:03 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) Matt McCraw and his wide-eyed Air Force teammates were cruising on a fireboat in the Hudson River as guests of the New York Fire Department, when they stopped in front of the Statue of Liberty.

For a few moments, the excited group of young basketball players turned quiet.

"You always see it in encyclopedias and on the Internet, but actually seeing her right there, that was awesome," McCraw said Tuesday with a broad smile. "We also went to ground zero, and that was really humbling and put everything in perspective for us, why we're in our business and why we're protecting the freedom of people in the United States."

Air Force (26-8) is in New York as one of four semifinalists in the National Invitation Tournament, where they'll take on Clemson (24-10) in one of the games at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

West Virginia (25-9) faces Mississippi State (21-13) in the other game, with the winners playing for the championship Thursday night. All four semifinals teams were top seeds in the NIT's new bracket system.

The Falcons, whose tour of Manhattan on Monday also included visits to a few firehouses that lost members during the terrorist attacks, have been constantly greeted by strangers and reminded that they're appreciated for more than what they do on the basketball court.

"At breakfast today, I was walking to get my plate at the buffet and there were some ladies sitting right there and they were all Army moms and wives," coach Jeff Bzdelik said during an NIT coaches' luncheon at a midtown hotel. "They had tremendous respect for what my players stand for, and one of the moms had lost her son 18 months ago in Iraq. We were all embracing."

Air Force, a sentimental favorite, has gone from being snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee to getting within a win of a chance at a title. After the Falcons beat DePaul last Wednesday to reach the semifinals, the players and fans broke into a wild on-court celebration.

"When it became evident that we would not make the NCAA, I gathered my team together and gave them a history lesson about the NIT," Bzdelik said. "I told them that we should embrace this opportunity."

And the Falcons certainly have. They've won four straight -- their first postseason victories in 17 years -- following a four-game skid, and are in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time.

Air Force, which has already set a team record for wins, is led by a Princeton-style offense that includes McCraw (10.8 points and 3.0 assists), and senior forwards Dan Nwaelele (14.3 points) and Jacob Burtschi (13.6 and 6.0 rebounds).

Standing in the Falcons' way is a Clemson team that beat Syracuse to reach the NIT semifinals for the second time, and first since 1999. Clemson, which has never played Air Force, has a balanced scoring attack, led by sophomore forward K.C. Rivers (13.7) and junior forward James Mays (12.4).

After starting the season 17-0, the Tigers stumbled late and lost to Florida State in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"To be able to attach 'champions' behind our name would be pretty special," coach Oliver Purnell said. "If we are going to move on, we are going to have to play one of our best games of the year."

West Virginia is becoming quite familiar with New York, making its second trip in three weeks after playing in the Big East tournament.

"Playing at Madison Square Garden is a big deal," sophomore guard Alex Ruoff said. "Because we've played here before, we're not going to be star-struck."

The Mountaineers certainly don't need to be, not when their offense ranks fourth in the country with 10.7 3-pointers a game. Add that to coach John Beilein's tough 1-3-1 defense, and Mississippi State knows it's in for a tough match up.

"Everybody talks about how good he is offensively, but he doesn't get enough credit for his defense," Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. "That defense is very unique in itself. Everybody calls it a 1-3-1, but only he knows what it really is. I have watched film, but I have no clue what it is yet."

They'll have to figure it out soon, especially with West Virginia looking to win its first NIT title since 1942. The Mountaineers last made the semifinals in 1981, and this year's team is here largely because of underrated shooter Frank Young. The senior forward is averaging 24.3 points in three NIT games.

Stansbury has led the Bulldogs to the NIT semifinals for the first time in school history, and he's done it with nine freshmen or sophomores on his roster. Mississippi State has quickly earned a reputation for being fast and difficult to defend, especially sophomore guard Jamont Gordon, who leads the team with 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.

"He's the whole package," Beilein said. "He's a do-everything player. The other guys know their roles so well and they get the ball to the right guy at the right time."