Jacksonville (1-0) started the season Saturday night on a high note, with a 92-84 win at Denver. The Dolphins lead most of the way, and stretched the advantage out to as many as 16 late in the second half before withstanding a furious rally by the Pioneers to win its first season opener since 2007.
Now JU travels a little higher into the Rockies to tangle with the Air Force Falcons (1-0) Monday night. The Academy won its opener 88-71 over NAIA McPherson College Friday night, and returns 13 players, including all five starters from a year ago. Head coach Dave Pilipovich enters his fifth season at the helm.
Darien Fernandez battled foul trouble throughout, but still scored in double-figures, four of which came on crucial free throws down the stretch. Devin Harris played in a variety of spots, but was effective handling the ball in JU’s large lineup as well. Look for the Dolphins to potentially use him at the one a little more Monday night. Tanner Rubio was not fazed by the moment in his first collegiate game.
Junior Jacob Van helps facilitate the Princeton-style offense that the Falcons run, and is expected to take on an expanded role this season. He is dangerous from deep as well, hitting 43 percent of his three pointers last year and was 2-3 in the opener. Junior Trevor Lyons returned after missing the last 10 games due to injury to dish out five assists Friday. He averaged nearly 13 points per game before getting hurt last spring.
Edge: Air Force. Jacksonville got good production from its point men Saturday, but the experience and home court advantage gives the edge to the Cadets.
Marcel White had a quiet opener, but still had 10 points and two steals. It was fellow senior JR Holder who stole the show Friday night, dropping a career high 30 on Denver, while looking like a nightmare matchup as he shot the three and got to the rim equally effectively. Can he go back-to-back?
Senior Zach Kocur dropped 14 points in the opener and pulled down six rebounds. It will be a little harder for him to be that versatile and effective against the size of Jacksonville.
Edge: Jacksonville. Until he shows otherwise, JR Holder is the toughest matchup on this team and should be a nightmare for Air Force to deal with.
Cody Helgeland could not have scripted up a much better debut, scoring 20 points, grabbing six rebounds, while showcasing his ability to shoot the three well (3-6 from deep) and convert at the line (perfect 7-7). Defensively, he was beat on a few rotations but held his own against the bigger Pioneer post players. It seems like the transfer year off might have done wonders for him.
Six foot five senior Hayden Graham is the leading returning scorer and rebounder. He can score both inside and out, and in an offense that does not tend to single out performers, might be the closest thing to a go-to scorer Air Force has. An efficient 7-11 shooting night left him with a team high 16 points on Friday.
Edge: Air Force. Slightly. Both Helgeland and Graham provide matchup issues for each other, and size should benefit JU, but experience and proven ability pushes Graham over the top.
Demontrez Austin turned in one of his best games at JU, ripping down a team high seven boards, and added three points and a steal in 20 minutes. Omar El Manasterly managed just one assist and one rebound in 18 minutes. Might we see a change in starters Monday night?
Junior Frank Toohey is six foot seven, and his backups are both six feet eight, so there will not be the size disparity that Jacksonville is used to facing in early season games. Toohey, who averaged 5.5 points per game last season, poured in 14 in the opener, mostly via free throws. JU will have to stay disciplined.
Edge: Jacksonville. With the size of Air Force not being significantly in their favor, Austin and Omar should be able to flex their muscle.
The aforementioned Austin, Harris and Rubio all provided a spark off the bench, and figure to get more time Monday night. Having two different style guards and an athletic post is a luxury for JU. Andris Misters and Darius Dawkins played a combined 10 minutes in their return from injuries. Will they get more play as the season progresses?
There are 22 total players on Air Force’s roster, and 11 came off the bench to see action Friday night. That number seems a little high as the season continues, but seeing as many as seven Cadets roll off the bench would not be a surprise. Freshman wing Lavelle Scottie saw significant time, but scored just two points and added a block. Junior guard CJ Siples will see plenty of action and had four assists Friday.
Final Remarks: Jacksonville is coming off of a big and emotional win to open the season, and those in the know always say that the second game in the altitude tends to be the tougher of the two. Air Force is a well-coached, disciplined team that will test the patience of the Dolphin defense. A win tonight might be even more impressive than the one over Denver.
Jacksonville at Air Force tips off at 9 p.m. and can be heard locally on 92.5 FM and nationally on mixlr.com/judolphins.