Last Call Coming For Army’s Heralded Senior Class

WEST POINT, N.Y. – Zach Spiker had just 10 days after being hired to prepare for his first head coaching gig, but being a bit quixotic is part of how he got to be a head coach anyway just a couple of days after his 33rd birthday.

Army hadn’t had a winning record since 1984-85, you say? Didn’t matter, after all Spiker and his energy had helped make Cornell and his boss Steve Donahue an Ivy League powerhouse, surely anything was possible at West Point.

He and the Black Knights won nine of their first 11 games in that 2009-10 campaign, four of them against Ivy teams (that season Donahue and Cornell went to the Sweet 16), using a shutdown defense that was fourth nationally in defensive turnover rate. Alas, Army also finished 335th in offensive efficiency and finished 14-15 after losing to freshman C.J. McCollum and Lehigh in the Patriot League Tournament.

Zach Spiker has Army playing inspired basketball. (Photo Credit - Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Zach Spiker is now in his seventh season coaching Army. (Photo Credit – Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

After the novelty wore off, Army was back to 11-19 and 12-18 the next two seasons (and a combined 8-20 in the Patriot League). But Spiker wasn’t (and isn’t) someone who spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he tweaked things, committed to playing even more up-tempo, shooting more threes, running more bodies at people.

He had wooed a stellar (and huge) class of freshmen to West Point for the 2012-13 campaign with an entertaining style that wasn’t really natural to what he had seen in his apprenticeship under John Beilein and Donahue, but seemed to fit the athletes he was receiving. Those freshmen paid almost immediate dividends, helping the Black Knights post a 16-15 record, 8-6 in the Patriot League. It was Army’s first winning record in 28 years (and its first winning Patriot record ever) and it eventually lost a close game to a loaded Bucknell team in the conference semifinals. That was enough for Spiker to win Patriot League Coach of the Year and seemed to set the stage for bigger and better things to come at historic Christl Arena.

Now sophomores in 2013-14, Kyle Wilson, Tanner Plomb, Dylan Cox, Kevin Ferguson, and Larry Toomey (all except Toomey regular starters) won their first four Patriot League games and were 6-1 and 8-3 in the league, but struggled down the stretch. Although they upset Bucknell in the Patriot League quarterfinals, Boston University eventually took them out in the semifinals, finishing 10-8 in conference, but 15-16 overall.

The five complement each other extremely well: Cox plays the point and although not a pure shooter, can slash and finish as opponents’ defenses are stretched. Wilson brings size to the shooting guard position at 6’4”, Toomey can hit shots when called upon, but is the defensive star, Plomb can do a little bit of everything and takes the pressure off Wilson on the perimeter, even at 6’7”, while Ferguson – at 6’10” one of the tallest people ever to enroll at West Point – is the rim protector.

They would have liked a better finish to their sophomore (or yearling as it’s called on campus) campaign, but coming off another winning record in the Patriot League, last season was set to be the one for Army, Spiker, and his junior class, putting them on the national radar as a feel-good story and finishing off that annoying NCAA Tournament drought once and for all. They were picked second in the preseason league poll, again started 9-2 including wins over USC and their first All-Military Classic title (beating Air Force). They stumbled a bit after that, but used a three-game win streak to climb back to 5-4 in the Patriot League, and appeared to be headed back to the top of the league.

But Army would win just one more game all season, losing nine of its last 10, falling all the way to 6-12 in conference (ninth) and losing in a Patriot League play-in game at rival Navy of all people for the coup de grace to finish at 15-15 overall.

What made the losing streak even more baffling was the lack of a primary cause. All five juniors were relatively healthy all season, the top five on the team in minutes played and recording 140 of a possible 150 starts. Wilson, the preseason conference Player of the Year, missed a game with a concussion, but was back in plenty of time for Patriot League play. Other than the suddenly poor three-point shooting, nothing jumped out on the stat sheets, perhaps defensive turnover rate, which went from 65th to 183rd (and has dropped to 273rd early this season).

Some nights the defense struggled, others (like in their final two losses), the offense did. Army ended up ninth (the same place it resided in the final standings) in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The only number that really stood out from the rest was tempo, the Black Knights have played at the highest pace in the league the last four years, in contrast to most of the plodding Patriot teams (the conference ranked 30th, 29th, and 28th, respectively, of 31 the last three seasons in tempo per KenPom).

Wilson’s shooting in particular never really recovered last season as he shot just 31.6% from behind the arc in Patriot play (42-133) after shooting at a 49.3% clip (37-75) as a sophomore, and 43.2% as a freshman (16-37). Part of that is certainly opponents’ schemes, and Wilson – with help from his teammates, including Plomb whose 21.3 points per game is currently 20th nationally  – was back up to 41.4% from behind the arc this season until a 2-13 performance Sunday knocked him back a couple of notches. Wilson recently moved into fifth on the all-time Army scoring list, and although he is unlikely to catch Kevin Houston for the record, should finish at least third barring injury. He will also likely complete his career among the top five in Patriot League history behind only names like McCollum, Rob Feaster, and Mike Muscala. Coming into this season, he had the seventh most points of anyone active in Division I.

So for Spiker, Wilson and the offense will not be the problem. His team is still 92nd nationally in offense and 40th in eFG%, and posted 1.06 ppp Sunday against Marist even with a dreadful shooting afternoon.

“We’ve made a lot of adjustments from last year with how we go about our business,” Spiker said. “I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but I would say a big chunk from last year to this year is order and health. This game will not define us. We were beaten, but we are not a defeated group. We have a very good basketball team and I think we have a great future ahead of us. We just have to be better on defense.”

Gary Parrish of CBS recently wrote an informative feature explaining why Dave Pilipovich of Air Force had the toughest coaching job in Division I basketball.

Parrish gave special mention to the other service academies, including Spiker at Army. Parrish’s rationale for putting Air Force ahead of Army and Navy was the Falcons playing in the Mountain West as opposed to the Patriot League, but surely Spiker and Ed DeChellis could probably get 1B and 1C for toughest places to win. One look at Army’s historical records should be enough evidence.

The pool of recruits Spiker can choose from is tiny, kids that not only want to serve their country after graduation, but also want to deal with the physical and mental stress of cadet life at West Point in addition to playing Division I basketball. It takes a toll on what Spiker can do and when during the season, and he always has to be on alert to make sure his team is not fatigued.

The five senior starters hail from all corners of the nation. Cox comes for suburban Austin, Texas: Wilson was a SoCal kid from Mission Viejo, Plomb grew up in a small town southeast of Milwaukee, Toomey is from St. Louis, while Ferguson is the only east coaster of the group, from Berkeley Heights, N.J., west of Newark. They represent the geographic diversity that defines the United States Military Academy and the U.S. Army.

Typical day for athlete at West Point is rough.

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

By all accounts, Spiker has done a remarkable job overall in an impossible spot. In addition to a pair of winning Patriot League records, he will tie Les Wothke for third in wins (92) on Army’s all-time coaching list with his next victory. Army has had three straight 15-win seasons for the first time since Bobby Knight was leading them from 1967-70 (which also means Mike Krzyzewski never accomplished that feat). But he would love to hang Army’s first NCAA Tournament banner on the Christl Arena wall that contains just six of the NIT variety (as you probably know, St. Francis Brooklyn, William & Mary, Northwestern, and The Citadel are the others that have been Division I since the NCAA Tournament began in 1939 and never qualified for it).

Spiker has already lasted longer at West Point than Knight, who left after six seasons (and an 11-13 record in his final campaign of 1970-71), and Krzyzewski, who went to Duke after five years (his last a 9-17 campaign in 1979-80 that featured four non-Division I victories). The last head basketball coach at West Point to make it more than eight seasons was Leo Novak, who never had a losing record in 13 seasons in charge from 1926-1939, going 13-2 in his final campaign. Alas, that was a slightly different era, Novak is best known as a Hall of Fame track and field coach, who led Army for a quarter-century ending in 1949.

Soon after Spiker was hired, then athletic director Kevin Anderson (who later oversaw Maryland’s move to the Big Ten) paid him perhaps the ultimate compliment, comparing him to Maggie Dixon, who led the Army women’s team to the NCAAs in 2006 before tragically dying of a heart condition at age 28 just three weeks after Army was eliminated.

“I hate to do this to Zach but I feel a similar energy,” Anderson said in 2010. “I saw what this place was like when she had things going. I believe he can deliver.”

Spiker is still extremely young by head coaching standards at 39, but he knows his best chance at Army’s first NCAA bid for a while might lie with this year’s senior class. Army is one of only two teams in the nation (Tulsa) that start five seniors on a regular basis. Yet probably based on last season’s tough ending, the Black Knights were picked fourth behind Lehigh, Bucknell, and Boston University in the preseason Patriot League poll, getting zero of 20 first-place votes. Even more eyebrow raising, Wilson and Army were shut out of the preseason All-Patriot League squad completely.

They started 8-2 (including a win at Air Force), but Sunday’s home loss to Marist showed some of the fears going forward. Khallid Hart and Brian Parker were able to get to the rim at will against Army’s aggressive defense and the Black Knights (who came in fourth nationally in three-point shooting) missed 22 of their first 23 three pointers before finishing 7-38, breaking a streak of nine straight games of making 10 or more from behind the arc. Marist, just 2-6 entering, scored 44 points in the paint, shot 56.3 eFG%, and subsequently posted 1.14 points per possession in the 89-83 victory.

“What we’ll all take out of this is we have to do a better job defending,” Spiker said. “You can take the stat sheet, fold it in half, and just look at Marist’s side and that tells the story. That’s all that matters. And if we don’t get this situation fixed, we’re going to be in this same situation more than not again.”

Army’s final non-conference game is an intriguing one, with streaking Monmouth (and its bench, yes) coming to Christl Arena next Monday before the Black Knights open Patriot League play at the preseason favorite, Lehigh, on Wednesday.

At their recent Branch Night, this year’s senior class found out where they will be headed after graduation in May. Plomb and Wilson will go to Field Artillery, Cox and Ferguson to Transportation, while Toomey’s future is in Artillery. What happened in the past is history. And they have one more shot to write their own pages in Army basketball lore in the next few months.

Will the final chapter end in March on national television?

“I feel like there definitely is some extra urgency as seniors, but at the same time we treat every game the same anytime else,” Plomb said. “You prepare for the games, and you don’t want to have the same regrets afterward like we did today, because this is it for the seniors.”