You won’t typically find a head coach in the middle of his team’s warm-up fray, but there was Army’s Zach Spiker 12 minutes before game time. Sans a suit jacket, the 37-year old head coach was barking encouragement and vigorously clapping his hands as his Black Knights went through their pre-game routine this past Saturday afternoon. The fire and excitement in Spiker’s eyes was evident; after all, he had a lot to be encouraged about these days.
It has been a very good run of basketball off the banks of the Hudson River in West Point. Last season marked the first time that Army finished with a winning record (16-15) since the 1984-85 season. This season, after an unexpected 1-6 skid to open up their 2013-14 campaign, the Black Knights are setting program firsts once again. Their seemingly out-of-nowhere 4-0 start in the Patriot League is the first time the program has ever achieved such a feat.
Winners of six of their last seven Division I contests, the 312th most experienced team in the NCAA has a bright future ahead of them. They’re currently entrenched in a three-way tie for first place in their conference, along with American and Boston University, the consensus preseason favorites.
On Saturday, in front of a near capacity crowd at Alumni Hall in Annapolis, MD, the Black Knights used stingy defense and timely offensive execution to grind out a victory against their rivals, the Navy Midshipmen. Every match-up between the two brings out the TV cameras and a whirlwind of attention these two mid-major programs don’t otherwise get to experience over the course of the season. The energy, excitement, and added pressure comes with the territory, and in front of a hostile environment this past weekend, the youthful Black Knights found a way to better the Midshipmen and continue their perfect conference record.
Just don’t expect Spiker to spend his post game press conference glossing over his team’s most recent achievement. That’s not part of his style.
“We’re focused on the process a whole lot more than the outcome,” Spiker admitted. “Trust me, I’m happy that we won, but if we get caught up on the stuff that you want to write about or people want to talk about and our fans get caught up in, we’ll fall flat on our face. This is a team that’s going to remain humble and hungry, because we’re focused on the next opportunity to have a good close out. And we’re not worried about the score right now.”
The head coach, now in his fifth season, isn’t keen on letting his team look too far down the road. As the communications major from Ithaca College elegantly spoke to a smattering of media members after Saturday’s victory, Spiker discussed Army’s mantra of tackling the season one game at a time. The overall message is certainly cliché, but he’s authentic in what he preaches to his cadets on a daily basis.
“As a basketball team and a program, this was the next game for us and that’s why it was a really big game for us,” Spiker said. ”The challenge is, for our guys, Wednesday night is a really big game for us, because it’s the next one.”
Despite their head coach’s modesty, Army has been terrific as of late. Paired with a newfound tenacity on defense – Army has given up 0.99 points per possession in league play, a significant improvement from their non-conference numbers - the Black Knights currently possess some of the best offensive numbers the conference has to offer.
Their offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, has them scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions, tops in the Patriot League. Army’s two-point field goal percentage of 54.6% is 11th nationally and illustrates their willingness to attack the rim when warranted. Sure, they remain reliant on the three-point shot, but when the opportunity presented itself – as was the case versus Navy - the players wisely passed up contested looks behind the arc for higher percentage shots, a.k.a layups, within a few feet of the basket. Call it a maturation when Army is victorious after draining just a pair of three-pointers after 40 minutes of play.
Spiker agrees. “We like to shoot open threes and thought (Navy’s) defense was good, so we didn’t have open threes. And I think to (our) guys’ credit, there have been other games and other times we would have been 2 of 25 (from three). We realized we’re not going to have tremendous shot selection, (so) we take the right shots, and get to the rim.”
According to Hoop-Math, Army has attempted 37.8% of their field goals at the rim, which is just below the Division I average of 38.3%. For a club that takes a sizable portion of their shots from behind the arc (41.4%), this number may be surprisingly high, yet it speaks to the efficiency of their offensive attack. Armed with athleticism and size, perimeter players such as Kyle Wilson, Dylon Cox and Tanner Plomb have been successful at creating off the dribble and slashing to the hole. It also helps when 6’10″ sophomore center Kevin Ferguson finds himself second in the Patriot League in field goal percentage at 63.4%.
Quite simply, by removing the less-efficient two-point jumpers from their arsenal, Army has optimized their offensive attack with a barrage of layups and three-pointers.
Still, Spiker credits Army’s turnaround by citing his team’s effort on the other side of the ball. “If you look at our numbers – the first seven (games), the last seven – the same guys are playing, with the exception of maybe one … so we’re just defending with a better urgency,” Spiker said.
While their defensive numbers are firmly in the middle of the pack after four Patriot League contests, the squad continues to force turnovers at a high rate. Army is forcing league opponents to turn it over on nearly 20% of their possessions, good enough for fourth in the conference. On Saturday, the Black Knights extracted 12 Midshipmen turnovers in 62 total possessions.
Whatever the reason for Army’s recent resurgence, there’s no denying their contender status at the moment. The team, who had four sophomores in the starting lineup on Saturday, is surely on the upswing and while Boston University remains the prohibitive favorite, at least in the near term, Spiker has his Black Knights within striking distance.
With more work to be done, perhaps Army can get back to the postseason for the first time since 1978. The Army head coach back then was someone you may have heard of … the long-time Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Getting the Black Knights back to the national stage of the NCAA tournament would be quite an achievement, although Spiker won’t let his himself or his team get ahead of themselves. They have a home game versus Holy Cross this Wednesday to focus on.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride