Army won’t finish with the Patriot League’s best record, and there’s a good chance it will play every playoff game on the road. But the Black Knights are surging at the right time — having won five straight after Tuesday’s win at Boston University — and they might be the team no one else wants to face next week in the Patriot League Tournament.
The Black Knights (9-8 Patriot League) looked like the league’s top team in non-conference play, in which they punctuated a 9-3 record with a win over Monmouth. Halfway through the league slate, though, they were just a game out of last place, thanks in large part to injuries to Tanner Plomb and Kevin Ferguson. But after beating BU (10-7 Patriot), Army is 8-3 when fully healthy — a pace that would challenge Bucknell for the league lead if sustained for the full season.
Plomb and Ferguson missed the first meeting with BU, but they led the visitors in the rematch. Plomb had 10 rebounds to go along with 16 points, 11 of which were earned in the paint. Since returning from a knee injury in early February, the senior has averaged 17.3 ppg.
Ferguson’s impact has been even more dramatic; after playing only 19 minutes off the bench in his first game back from an ankle injury, he has posted a double-double in all seven games since, including 18 and 14 on Tuesday. Ferguson leads the league in field goal percentage, and his performance at BU — 6-10 shooting, 6-8 from the foul line, two turnovers — was his least efficient game in February (“only” a 116 offensive rating).
Army’s center has averaged 10.4 rebounds per game, tops in Patriot League play; his strength on the glass put all three BU big men in foul trouble. And Ferguson is a true rim protector, restoring balance to a defense that aggressively chases shooters off the three-point line and funnels them inside. “We’re a group of veteran guys, we know we have the ability to win,” Ferguson said. “We came out and hit big shots, at the end we hit free throws, and we came out with a big win tonight.”
The Black Knights also got help from their bench. Freshman John Emezie scored seven straight points early in the first half, helping Army build a nine-point lead. And sophomore Luke Morrison added 11 points, including back-to-back threes from the left wing after halftime.
“Everyone talks a lot about our five seniors, but we’re a really complete team, and I think you saw that in action tonight,” Army coach Zach Spiker said. “Luke Morrison really stretched the defense, those were big shots.”
Army still has a shot at a top-four seed (and home-court advantage in the Patriot League quarterfinals), but a fifth or sixth-place finish is more likely. Historically, that would be a tough draw in a tournament that was won by a top-two seed every year through 2014. But last year’s 4-vs-6 final ushered in a new era, and the Patriot League looks wide open again this season. In that context, few will want to face a talented team with five senior starters looking for the program’s first NCAA bid ever.
“Nothing’s going to be easy in this league, nothing at all. But you can tell that this group is playing together, and they’re gelling nicely as the season comes to an end,” Spiker said.
While Army is rolling with a healthy lineup, BU has no such luck. After being sidelined for a month, backup point guard Eric Johnson returned with a splash, shooting 4-4 from long range. (The sophomore had made only 10 career treys entering Tuesday.) But the snake-bitten Terriers couldn’t enjoy the extra depth for long: Kyle Foreman left the game with an ankle injury after a collision under the basket, eventually hobbling out of the gym on crutches.
Despite having a shorter bench — and playing on only one full day of rest — the Terriers kept right up with a fast-paced Army team. Eric Fanning scored nearly half his 20 points by pushing ahead in transition, and the hosts got multiple steals in the backcourt. They looked comfortable playing a 77-possession tempo (their fastest of the season), but they shot only 28 percent after halftime.
“We wanted to push it back at them at times, and then at times control it,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “I thought if we made a few more shots, we could’ve controlled the game a little bit more. When you’re missing shots, you can’t control your defense, you can’t slow them down, and they keep coming back at you.”
If Foreman’s injury keeps him out longer, the Terriers will be without three Opening Day starters. Justin Alston is out for the season, and Nathan Dieudonne has sat out four games with a foot injury. (Cedric Hankerson, a preseason all-league wing, only appeared in one game all season.)
But despite the injuries, BU is still in third place in the Patriot League (to be possibly joined by Navy or Colgate tomorrow). The Terriers would likely earn a top-four seed with a win in the season finale against Holy Cross. They hope to have Dieudonne back for the conference tournament, and if not, well, injuries haven’t stopped them so far.
“They’ve shown a great level of resilience. That’s the thing I love about this group — they just keep coming at you,” Jones said.
“I’ve never had a year like this. For good and bad,” he added.