Falcons still formidable under Mooney

You have heard about the psychological tactic used in police interrogation. Now consider the basketball definition.

Bad cop: The coach who generally raises a player's antipathy, who yells and screams and dispenses discipline like PEZ does candy.

Good cop: The coach who offers support, understanding, sympathy, a shoulder to lean on while rebuilding a battered psyche.

They didn't worry about such labels at Air Force last year.

"Bascially," says Chris Mooney, "it was more like bad cop, worse cop."

Mooney is the new head coach of the Falcons, having replaced Joe Scott when the latter departed for Princeton. Last season, the two led Air Force to an outright title in the Mountain West Conference and the school's first NCAA Tournament berth in 42 years, led it to center stage and under a bright spotlight as the nation's feel-good story.

Led it in a very specific way.

"You're never really patted on the back much here, unless you win a conference championship," said junior center Nick Welch. "Then, you get a quick pat and start hearing about the next game. ... You might hear 'Nice pass' or 'Good steal' once in a while, but that's it. You can make a 30-footer and the attitude (from coaches) is like, 'You made a shot. That's what you're supposed to do.' "

The best part: Air Force players wouldn't have it any other way.

The Falcons won 22 games last season and are already 3-1 under Mooney because they get it. They understand strengths and weaknesses like they do combat survival training. They know if wins and losses were decided exclusively on heights and weights and vertical leaps, theirs would be a short list of accomplishments.

"We recognize our limitations, that we need to be so good at what we do to have a chance at competing with people on our schedule," said senior guard Tim Keller. "You have a job to do and need to do it and at the same time don't always need someone telling you how good you are. We realize how well we have to perform to have a chance. We've always know that."

Know this: Anyone who believes Air Force will take a colossal tumble from its Mountain West perch this season is badly misguided. Already, the Falcons have routed Mississippi en route to a place in the Black Coaches Association Coaches Classic final, where they lost to Marquette by four in Milwaukee. Road games against Georgia Tech, Iowa and Saint Mary's await.

Not much has changed because Mooney wouldn't allow it. He hadn't been named coach a few hours before players hit the floor for individual workouts. Idea being, they needed to hear his voice as the one in charge. Like Scott, he played for legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril. Like Scott, he is religious about running the deliberate system that is a maze of back-door cuts and three-point shots.

"If teams are still surprised we're going to take 35 seconds to shoot, there's something wrong," Mooney said of his team which was picked third in preseason Mountain West polls behind UNLV and Utah. "I think the novelty has worn off and people recognize we have our league's returning co-Player of the Year (in Welch) and two others (Keller and point guard Antoine Hood) who received all-conference recognition.

"We'll do the same things as always. It's not a set system of plays as much as a way of playing. If my guys went out to play pick-up ball, this is how they would play. (Scott) is certainly very intense, off the court more than I am, but in a manner of coaching, we're pretty similar. At Princeton, there wasn't much patting on the back, either. Coach Carril was very rough and his assistants, too."

Said Welch: "It's almost as if we didn't lose Coach Scott."

Mooney was last a head coach at Division III Beaver (Penn.) College and before that Lansdale Catholic High in Philadelphia. He can't yet say how he will react to certain late-game situations, when the Falcons are trailing a conference opponent by one with under 20 seconds left on the road, when he can't hear his own voice over the deafening cheers in places like Albuquerque and Provo.

He is certain of a few things, though.

"On one hand, I have a lot to learn," Mooney said. "But many things -- preparing your team for a game, talking to it after a loss, dealing with the media, preparing for an off-season conditioning program -- are universal."

And what about non-conference scheduling?

Will we soon see Air Force against Princeton?

"No way," Mooney said. "A final score of 22-21? We don't need that in college basketball."

Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.