Senior Michael Lyons figured he would go from driving the lane to carpooling to his awaiting desk job once he hoisted his final jumper at Air Force.
After years of burying baskets for the Falcons as a shooting guard, his next military assignment after graduation was scheduled to be “buying things for the Air Force” as an acquisitions officer.
Only, there’s been a change of plans for one of the school’s all-time leading scorers. He will now mentor future Falcons as an assistant coach of the academy’s prep school squad. It’s a fitting promotion, but a role he’s not quite ready to step into just yet.
Lyons hopes to extend his playing career a little longer as the Falcons (17-12) face UNLV (23-8) on Wednesday during the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
He’s eager for some bonus basketball, too. With two wins over Top 25 opponents already on the resume this season, a NIT berth could be a possibility for Air Force. Or perhaps even a spot in the NCAA field, should the team win the MWC tournament.
That’s a tough task, considering this is one of the premier conferences in the country. But Lyons has his team flying high, fresh off an 89-88 win over No. 15 New Mexico last weekend to end the regular season. He’s the league’s leading scorer, averaging 18.3 points.
And when Lyons heats up, few can stop him. He scored a career-high 45 points against Colorado State earlier this season, along with 37 against Boise State and 30 to stun New Mexico.
“It’s been a pretty good season for me,” Lyons said.
Just pretty good?
“He’s done so much for this program,” coach Dave Pilipovich said.
That seems more apropos.
In his stretch at the academy, Lyons has vaulted up to fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list, with 1,527 career points (Raymond Dudley occupies the top spot, scoring 2,178 points from 1986-90).
And that’s with teams keeping close tabs on him, too, some blanketing him with an extra defender while others try to bump him around – anything to prevent him from getting a good look at the rim.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that teams don’t really leave me open as much this season,” said Lyons, who was named to the first-team All-Mountain West squad on Monday. “I have to create more on my own, cut more, be more physical. Teams are definitely playing me harder.”
That’s simply because when he gets on a roll, there’s not much that can be done. His 45-point eruption against CSU on Jan. 16 was evidence of that. That was the highest scoring output by any Air Force player not named Bob Beckel, who has the top four single-season games in school history, including a 50-point outing against Arizona on Feb. 28, 1959.
“There is just no answer for when a guy gets like that,” Rams coach Larry Eustachy said of Lyons’ performance. “That’s like one of those NBA guys.”
The 6-foot-5, 193-pound Lyons has hardly been an overnight sensation.
No, he’s steadily bloomed into a scorer, his average climbing each season with the Falcons. He went from 6.9 points a game his freshman season to 13.7 as a sophomore and to 15.6 last year.
This season, he’s taken it to another level.
Any insight on why?
“I think, along with how hard I’ve been working, the mental part of it is making the game easier,” said Lyons, who’s from Newport News, Va. “I’ve been through a lot, seen a lot. It just makes the game a little easier when I go out there and play.”
An acquisitions officer by training, Lyons thought for sure something along those lines would be his first assignment after graduation. That he would be sitting behind a desk, doing some “business-type things.”
It was a pleasant shock when he found out he would be working with the prep squad, possibly turning a cadet into the next Lyons.
He was once in their sneakers, coming up through the prep school, which helps players get used to the military and academic side before the academy. Their time at the prep school doesn’t count against eligibility.
When he was there, Lyons averaged nearly 18 points a game and led the squad to a 24-8 mark against a schedule that included junior college squads and some JV teams.
His return to that level will soon have him working with a guard who possesses a shooter’s touch and a knack for getting to the basket.
Sound a little familiar?
Lyons’ little brother, Trevor, is simply following in his footsteps.
“Trevor is much better than I was at that age,” said Michael Lyons, whose sister, Tish, played basketball at Old Dominion. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be great working with him.”
– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
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