December 14, 2009
When Army fired its basketball coach three weeks prior to the start of the 2009-2010 college basketball season, expectations for the team were lowered even more than usual. For a team without a winning season in a quarter-century, that's pretty low. Remarkably though, new coach Zach Spiker and his West Point cadets are off to a blazing 7-2 start, a win total which is more than the team had total in half of the seasons in the current decade.
Jim Crews was fired Sept. 24. School officials declined to give a reason for the termination, but it was reported that Crews was let go because he physically and verbally abused a player. Normally, such a late firing would lead to an in-house replacement for continuity's sake but Army declined to go that route. On Oct. 3 the school hired 33-year old Cornell assistant Zach Spiker who was given the unenviable task of taking over a team coming off an 11-19 record just 12 days before the start of practice.
Something has clicked though. Army has rattled off wins against four Ivy League opponents, including Princeton and Harvard (who beat Boston College last week). Led by Julian Simmons and Cleveland Richmond, the Black Knights are playing a stingy defense that has held teams to under 60 points in each of its seven wins.
It's a stunning start, to say the least. Despite having two of the three best coaches in college basketball history (Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski) coach at the school (as well as current Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio), Army has never advanced to the NCAA tournament. The last six year-end Pomeroy Ratings for the team were: 282, 268, 276, 331, 324 and 325 (usually out of about 340 teams). For a four-year stretch in the middle of the decade, Army went 19-89.
Recruiting at Army may be the most difficult job in college basketball. Along with Navy and Air Force, it's the only school where basketball truly comes second. You don't just commit to West Point because the coach is interested in you and you may get some playing time. It's a commitment on a whole other level. The Cadet Basic Training in the first summer (or Beast Barracks, as its fondly known), the pre-dawn wake-up calls, meals in the mess hall and the other hundred things that separate West Point from other schools are all obstacles in getting talent to play at Army. And that's not even mentioning the five-year military commitment all Cadets owe after graduation.
All of that ensures that character is never an issue for players on the Army basketball team, but field goal percentage often is. It's still way too early to say that Army could contend for its first NCAA tournament berth, but at least there's reason to hope. Ten weeks ago, who would have ever thought that?