WEST POINT, N.Y. – Amongst the alleged crumbling of American society, there are two bastions of hope that refuse to allow excuses to infiltrate thought and slow down society: team sports and the military.
Therefore it was not surprising that the first words out of Army coach Zach Spiker’s mouth after another frustrating evening that culminated in a 76-67 loss to Boston University Wednesday night were: “Injuries are no excuse”.
His opposing number, Joe Jones, begged to differ a little. After all, Tanner Plomb was averaging 21.8 points per game (14th best in the nation) and making a case for Patriot League Player of the Year before going down with a knee injury and missing the last four games. Fellow senior Kevin Ferguson is a four-year contributor, and at 6’10”, essential to everything Army does as a rim protector, and now he has been out for three games with an ankle injury.
You are looking (plausibly) live at the United States Military Academy: pic.twitter.com/WCm5SYlwwX
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 27, 2016
Quite simply, they’ve been irreplaceable for the Black Knights (12-8, 3-5) who are trending toward last year’s disappointing finish to the season.
“Those are huge hits for them,” Jones said. “You’re talking about a senior center who’s been a starter for four years now, and Plomb is the best player in the league in my opinion. He’s the best athlete and skilled player in the league this season. You don’t have a 6’10” center in there changing shots and you don’t have a guy averaging 20 a game. My heart goes out to him (Spiker), because I know what it’s like to lose players, and those are two really experienced guys obviously.”
Jones most certainly does know what’s it’s like. Last season’s second-team All-Patriot selection Cedric Hankerson played just 10 minutes this season before being shut down with a knee injury. Senior Justin Alston, who started all 30 games in 2014-15, broke his foot against Harvard and is hoping for a medical redshirt. Sophomore guards Eric Johnson and Will Goff, who filled some of that void, are now out themselves. Their two leading scorers – Eric Fanning and Cheddi Mosely – have missed time as well, and Mosely and guard Kyle Foreman are battling nagging ailments that have limited them in practice, which makes preparing for games interesting.
“The biggest issue we have right now is what we do in practice,” Jones said. “I really only have six healthy scholarship players for practices. Cheddi doesn’t practice every day because he’s coming off a stress fracture. Foreman has a bone bruise, so he doesn’t practice every day. Those two have been injured since November. Once Eric Johnson went down, that really put us in a bind because we literally don’t have enough bodies to practice. So how can we get better without practicing? We’re figuring out different things we can do that were gamelike. I was happy tonight we played a clean game from start to finish. We didn’t have too many spurts where we didn’t defend for a while or we weren’t efficient offensively for a while. We were consistent throughout the game.”
Of course, looking at the Terriers (11-11, 4-5) Wednesday, a full-strength squad could be quite scary. It was Jersey City native Mosely (23 pts.) and Nathan Dieudonne (17 pts, 18 rebs, shattering a previous career high of 14) who did most of the damage, but they had help from Fanning, point guard Foreman, and shot blocker Blaise Mbargorba, who had three in 15 minutes. Boston’s physical dominance carried over to the glass, where it posted 15 offensive rebounds (40.5%), well above their season average (26.6%, 272nd). Mosely has made 16 of his last 28 three-pointers.
“Coach always gives me a lot of confidence at practice and that carries over into games,” Mosely said. “I’m more familiar with the sets and how things work, so things have been definitely been easier this season.”
Those numbers are extremely concerning for Spiker, who is working hard to find answers, but they don’t appear to be there to be discovered at the moment.
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The Black Knights entered 10th nationally in adjusted tempo and have made their living as such with this senior group, but with two out have slowed things down, averaging just 65.5 possessions over their last four (Wednesday was 67). Spiker came out Wednesday without high pressure, actually employing a packline-like man-to-man, and it worked extremely well, Army led 15-6 after eight minutes and Boston looked extremely frustrated.
But it didn’t last, and that would in fact be the Black Knights’ largest lead. Kyle Wilson, who did his part offensively all night, hit a short jumper to put Army up 35-33 on the first possession of the second half, but they would never lead again. While the Terriers finished at 1.14 points per possession despite their slow start, Army posted a 1.00 ppp and has not posted anything higher than 1.03 ppp in its last seven games, five of which have been losses. Wilson had 25 points despite being a marked man. John Emezie (11 pts.) and Luke Morrison (9 pts.) helped a little, but not enough to move the offensive needle high enough to win.
“Everyone knows who’s out and what’s going on and what they’ve produced for us,” Spiker said. “We did have some other guys step up, I thought John Emezie hit some big shots and we had some other guys have some looks that didn’t go. But we need to regroup, we need to understand why we had success early on, understand what’s going on right now and get back after it Saturday.”
The good news for Spiker is that unlike Jones’ duo of Hankerson and Alston, Plomb and Ferguson are expected to return this season. But the million-dollar questions are when and at what capacity. Army (which is now down to sixth in the Patriot League in offensive efficiency) is at Bucknell Saturday and hosts Navy Monday, and it’s not likely either will return for either of those games (Plomb is reportedly a little further along than Ferguson). The Black Knights desperately want to finish sixth or higher to avoid a play-in game (they were ninth last season).
Of course, while their basketball careers will likely end sometime in March, recovering from injury has a little more importance at West Point, where the United States would like its newly commissioned highly-educated army officers to be at full health in May.
And so all Spiker can do is keep scheming and tweaking as best he can. On the plus side, there are plenty of quotes and inspiration around the West Point campus from people that have fought through adversity and somehow prevailed against the odds.
“There’s a lot of basketball left,” Spiker said. “This is certainly a disappointment. I think a lot of the guys that have played well for us can play better than they did today and they will. This is a group that’s accomplished a lot of great things and we need to draw on those moments and remain a team with our head up, meet the next challenge, and be excited for it.”
They don’t mess around at West Point. pic.twitter.com/YJm0R8Flw7
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 27, 2016