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Can this be the Army team that finally wins a Patriot League title?

September 24, 2015 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

It’s been a long struggle in the Patriot League for Army. The Black Knights are the only program in the league aside from relative newcomers Boston University and Loyola (Md.) to never win a league title, and join the Greyhounds in having never even reached the title game. In fact, they have finished in the first division of the league just twice, never higher than fourth.

That gives you an idea of the gargantuan task that was in front of head coach Zach Spiker when he took over after the sudden ouster of Jim Crews in 2009. And while there are bigger missions at the service academy than basketball, it is nonetheless part of life for some at the academy. Still, he has brought the program to new heights by recent measures, and now the hope is that he can take them just a bit higher in what should be “the year.”

The Black Knights will roll out a senior-laden team in 2015-16. It’s a core that’s been together since they were green freshmen and made the program’s best finish ever, as league Rookie of the Year Kyle Wilson led them to a fourth-place finish with an 8-6 league mark. They also won a game in the league tournament. As sophomores, they finished fifth in the expanded league with a 10-8 mark, the most league wins in school history, then won a game in the league tournament, this one on the road at Bucknell. It looked like good progress, and they had a nice run through non-league play last season. They won their first five games, then later won at USC in overtime to boot. There was every reason to think they were about to contend.

Then it all fell apart. Then they were like the Black Knights of old on the bottom line.

Army lost three of the first four league games – all at home, with the lone win coming in Baltimore against Loyola (Md.) – and never really recovered, though they did win three straight in late January. But that was followed by a six-game losing streak and just one win the rest of the way.

So steady progress was then followed by a precipitous drop that few saw coming. It leaves you looking at this season’s team in one of two ways: you dismiss them because you think they peaked last season, or you look at them as a sleeper because few would think of them as contenders after they struggled as a more mature bunch with the weight of expectations in 2014-15.

Quiet as it’s been kept, though, the Black Knights have won at least 15 games three years in a row. This is a core group that has won some games in their careers. They have also won double-digit games in every year that Spiker has been on the job, which puts him in some pretty heady company – only Bob Knight has ever accomplished that feat besides Spiker.

You get the idea.

Last season can’t be dismissed, certainly, as it wasn’t what was expected or desired. Opponents shot nearly 46 percent from the field against the Black Knights, and Army was out-rebounded. In league play, opponents shot over 47 percent, including 38 percent from deep. Those numbers, as well as some key offensive numbers, were basically the same as in 2014-15. So why the markedly different feelings? Easy: it wasn’t supposed to be that way. They were supposed to be better.

The Black Knights are an example of a team that returned most/all of their team, but didn’t get better. Many will look at a team like that and figure they will be better merely by virtue of returning so much, but the reality is a little more complicated. Teams with a lot returning have to work to get better during the off-season and then play better that season. Better results don’t happen automatically. The Black Knights weren’t going to be better just by virtue of having an older version of most of the same cast, especially in a Patriot League that is in the midst of a very good cycle. The league was one of the most competitive in the country in 2014-15, with first ad last place separated by just three games for a long stretch of the season. (Ultimately, last-place Army finished seven games behind regular season champion Bucknell.) Indeed, the bottom seven teams were separated by just three games.

The senior core should learn the lessons from that and come back ready to look more like the contenders many expected them to be last season. Their non-league schedule will have some challenges to that end, as they take on George Washington, Tennessee, Bryant and Air Force, but it’s also manageable with six home games. They could enter Patriot League play with a good record once again, as well as the confidence that comes with it. From there, the hope is that it will translate into a high finish, then a title at last.

Although the Patriot League is different now, fellow service academy Navy had a great run of success in the 1990s. The Midshipmen won three titles in five years, interrupted only by Colgate during the two years of Adonal Foyle. The league didn’t have scholarships like all members have now. But it also tells you what is possible, even though when it comes to titles, the league has come to be dominated by Bucknell, Lehigh, Holy Cross and American since the new century began.

Spiker has already brought Army to better days than the program has seen in a long time. Now he hopes to take them to one height they have never been to, and he appears to have just the team to do it. This can still be “the year” as some might have figured a year or two ago.

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