One of the most hotly debated questions at the start of Mountain West play was whether Wyoming or Boise State would build on their surprising non-conference performances and make an NCAA tournament push.
Both the Cowboys and Broncos have faded in conference play so far, but a new surprise team has emerged in their place.
Suddenly it's unheralded Air Force that looks like the Mountain West team most capable of joining New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State in the field 0f 68 next month. The Falcons at least temporarily moved into sole possession of second place in the league Saturday by earning their most significant victory of coach Dave Pilipovich's brief 28-game tenure, toppling 22nd-ranked San Diego State 70-67 in Colorado Springs.
By remaining undefeated at home in league play, Air Force improves to 14-6 overall and 5-2 in the Mountain West, a half game behind New Mexico entering the Lobos' game against Nevada later Saturday. The Falcons' RPI is still hovering around No. 70 because they accomplished little of significance prior to the start of conference play, but plenty of chances for marquee victories remain during the second half of the Mountain West season.
With two games against New Mexico, a visit to San Diego State and home games against UNLV and Colorado State still left to play, the obvious question now is whether Air Force can sustain this success. And the obvious answer is ... only if their efficient offense and accurate 3-point shooting is enough to overcome some of their deficiencies defensively and on the glass.
Volume-shooting guard Michael Lyons is Air Force's top scoring threat, but the Falcons surround him with four or five capable 3-point shooters. Air Force is shooting 48.4 percent from the field and a Mountain West-leading 39.2 percent from 3-point range, two areas that helped the Falcons stave off the normally stingy Aztecs on Saturday.
Air Force sank 12 of 30 3-pointers, eight in the first half. Lyons scored an efficient 20 points and Todd Fletcher added 13 as the Falcons won despite surrendering 13 offensive rebounds and allowing Jamaal Franklin to erupt for 25.
Franklin had a chance to tie the game at the foul line in the final minute, but he sank only one of two free throws after being fouled attacking the rim in transition. After two free throws at the other end by Kamryn Williams, Air Force survived 3-point attempts by Franklin and James to eke out the win.
By beating a ranked team to reaffirm itself as a Mountain West contender, Air Force has forced its way into the spotlight. We'll find out over the next few weeks if the Falcons have what it takes to stay there.