Smooth Road Hits Holy Cross Wall, But Army Not Quite Done

WEST POINT, N.Y. – The Army basketball team seemed to hit every bump and pothole in the road the last two seasons, derailing one of the best senior classes ever to play at West Point.

This season, it was injuries to center Kevin Ferguson and Tanner Plomb, who looked on his way to Patriot League Player of Year honors, that did the trick, turning Army from a 10-3 squad into a middle-of-the-road Patriot League squad, which – given the fact that the Black Knights were still on track for their second winning season in more than three decades – wasn’t terrible, but this was the group that was capable of removing Army once and for all from the Cursed Five, the programs (William & Mary, St. Francis Brooklyn, The Citadel, and Northwestern being the others) that have played Division I basketball since the NCAA Tournament as we know it began in 1939, but have never qualified for it.

However, just as Army was losing hope, a strange thing happened. The road opened up. The obstacles disappeared one by one. Ferguson and Plomb not only returned, but the rest seemed to make them sharper. The Black Knights crawled back to 9-9 in the league and got a break when tiebreakers put them in fourth, giving them a home game in the Patriot League quarterfinals.

They took advantage by beating Colgate, and – somewhat miraculously – its biggest impediment to the finals, regular-season champ Bucknell, was taken out by Holy Cross. That meant the Black Knights had another home game against a No. 9 seed it had beaten just two weeks prior and was just 5-13 in league play. With all five seniors (Dylan Cox, Kyle Wilson, and Larry Toomey the others) in the lineup, Army was 15-6 and a win would bring them national attention and put them 40 minutes from their first NCAA Tournament ever.

And then ….. Bam!

Army never saw the wall that hit them and finished it off.

After averaging more than 80 points per game with its full lineup intact, the Black Knights scored just 38 (a whopping 27 less than in any other game this season) in a 60-38 blowout loss that was tough to watch in the second half.

How tough? After Wilson hit a three just seconds after halftime to bring Army (19-13) within 34-29, the Black Knights scored just nine points the rest of the way, missing their final 15 three-pointers.

“We struggled guarding them and we struggled shooting the basketball,” Army coach Zach Spiker said. “And we turned the ball over a lot. If you do all three, we’re going to have a result like this. I know you do a lot of analytical studies, our points per possession could not have been good today. And that’s just what happened.”

Sheepishly, I informed Spiker it was 0.61 points per possession, and 0.41 ppp in the second half.

Noooo, those aren’t very good. And they obviously came at the worst possible time. The finality of college athletics means that the seniors will be off serving our country at this time next year (and we thank them for it), their competitive basketball careers finished.

“It’s been a great four years, a lot of fun,” Wilson said. “Honestly, right now it’s tough to think about that stuff because we’ve been working toward the NCAA Tournament and now it’s out of reach, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”

Some credit, obviously, goes to Holy Cross, who has played its best basketball in the last week. After going 0-9 outside of Worcester in Patriot play, the Crusaders (13-19) have won at Loyola, Bucknell, and now Army. They will go for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007 (its their first final since 2009).

Bill Carmody’s 1-3-1 baffled Army by being more aggressive than it had earlier in the season, forcing eight turnovers in the first eight minutes (in which Holy Cross grabbed a 10-point lead) and 18 for the contest. Holy Cross chased Army off the three-point line, but they still finished only 6-23 from inside the arc to go with 6-30 from outside. You don’t even have to add it up to know those aren’t winning combinations.

“Our defensive intensity has been much better,” Malachi Alexander said. “We were able to stop any runs that we were making. They have a lot of great shooters, and we just tried to run at them and make them uncomfortable as much as we could.”

Added Robert Champion, who led everyone with 15 points: “It’s something that we worked on a lot. This 1-3-1, we just keep getting better at it. “

And immediately all Patriot League fans shudder as they probably know they will have to deal with Holy Cross for the next few years under Bill Carmody.

Carmody, somewhat amazingly, will coach in his first conference title game Wednesday against Lehigh. There is an asterisk to that, obviously Princeton doesn’t compete in conference tournaments, and getting Northwestern to a Big Ten final is not the easiest task in the world. Still, Carmody has not been in the NCAA Tournament since 1998 (with Princeton), and couldn’t have thought that streak was ending this season a week ago.

“We had a great start and that always helped on an away court,” Carmody said. “To be honest, they missed some shots that they normally make. We tried hard to contest them, this was our best game of the year by far on the defensive end.”

If there is a silver lining for Army, it’s that its season is not finished. The program will make its first postseason appearance since 1978 (NIT) when it competes in the CIT, CBI, or Vegas 16 next week. That should allow Wilson (1,994) to get to 2,000 career points and he will finish sixth in Patriot League history (right behind former Army star Mark Lueking).

“It obviously stinks because we lost today,” Wilson said. “But the chance to keep on playing, any time you can get another game in your college career is great. We’ll be fired up and excited to play.”

And while it won’t be on the national stage, these seniors have certainly earned the right to play in another game. This season marks the first time Army has won 15 or more games in four consecutive seasons since 1920-1924. Spiker probably does, too, his next win will be his 103rd at West Point, passing Bob Knight for second all-time (Leo Novak is atop the list at 126 from 1927-1939).

The wins may be tougher to come by without this senior class, but they will get at least one more chance to shine next week.

“I don’t know if there’s any way to articulate what this senior class has done for the Academy and for Army basketball,” Spiker said. “It would not be fair to them to be defined by a 40-minute performance like this or any 40 minutes. Every facet of what college athletics is supposed to be about they represent and that makes it an honor to coach them. Because of them, we’ve earned the right to be a postseason team, so we’re not quite done yet.”