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Zach Spiker and Army basketball in the midst of making history

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To many, Army basketball is best known for producing such coaches as Bob Knight and longtime Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. These are two of the best to ever roam the sidelines, and their respective careers began at West Point—Coach K actually played for Knight during his time as a cadet (1966-1969).

This has been Army basketball’s legacy. They have no NCAA Tournament appearances to speak of and have not been to the postseason since 1978, have produced one NBA player in program history in Mike Silliman, have never reached the Patriot League championship, and have not had a winning season since 1984-1985.

All of that is true, except the final clause.

Army went 16-15 last year and 8-6 in the Patriot League. The above .500 record in league play was the first time in the 20+ year history of the league that the Black Knights finished above this mark.

Given the season Army had last year with such a young team – seven freshman routinely saw minutes – one would think that Zach Spiker, heading into his fifth season at West Point, would take some time to enjoy what he and his program have accomplished.

“Something that has stuck out to me, the quote in my mind, is really simple: ‘the arrogance of success is to think that what we did yesterday is good enough for tomorrow,’” Spiker told NBC Sports over the phone.

“We achieved some goals (last year), but not all the goals we wanted. At the end of the day we came in fourth place and were on the road in the semifinals. We need to keep working. We lose our top two perimeter scorers from last year (Ella Ellis graduated and freshman Kyle Toth transferred.) We’ve got to evolve and reestablish what our standards are going to be in order to be successful.”

When rising senior and soon to be two-year captain Josh Herbeck came to West Point as a freshman in 2011, the thought of finishing in the upper half of the Patriot League and winning a league championship were merely pipe dreams. That’s not the case anymore.

“It would mean everything to reach the NCAAs. Everyone who plays basketball dreams to get to that ‘One Shining Moment,’ said Herbeck. “This didn’t seem as attainable earlier in my career, but now we are right there, on the cusp.”

Spiker has Army well on their way. They will likely be picked to finish in the top four of the new-look Patriot League next season – remember, Boston University and Loyola (Maryland) are now full-time members – and return many pieces from a team that had a shot at knocking off Bucknell in the semifinals of last year’s conference tournament; Army trailed by just a possession at the final media timeout.

While the 2013-2014 campaign looks to be a banner season for Army, it wasn’t long ago that the program was stuck in the basement of Division 1 with Jim Crews, who was NBCSports.com’s c-Coach of the Year with St. Louis in 2012-2013, at the helm. Crews was fired in September of 2009 after butting heads with then athletic director Kevin Anderson for more than a year, and with practice beginning in just weeks, a coach had to be named immediately.

Enter, Zach Spiker.

“From afar, I knew the personnel because we played them in basketball, but I would say that is about it,” Spiker said of what he knew about the program prior to accepting the job. “I did know the terrific quote by MacArthur: ‘On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seed that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.’ I made a point, when I was an assistant coach at Cornell, to go out to [the patio outside of Christl Arena] and see that every time.”

“I took coach Crews out to breakfast two or three times after I was hired just to pick his brain about the school and program. He cared a lot about the school and loved the players…he really helped with my transition. If you were hired at Sports Illustrated to take over for Pete Thamel, wouldn’t you want to speak with him?”

While speaking with Crews helped Spiker’s transition, Army is a pretty unique place, and one would think that in order to have success at this institution, a different approach must be taken. The day-to-day lives of the student-athletes at these schools is certainly different than the average college student, but that doesn’t mean Spiker had to change his coaching approach when transitioning from an assistant at Cornell to the head man at Army.

“The approach we take is very similar to the approach we took as a staff at Cornell,” Spiker said. “Success hinges on knowing your players and building relationships with them. Going to them and bonding with them, wherever that may be.” For example, NBC Sports spoke with Spiker on July 22nd, a Monday afternoon. Earlier that morning, from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. – Spiker has gotten in the habit of referring to that as 0400 and 0800 – Spiker was with the 10th Mountain serving as OP4 for CFT … “opposing force for cadet field training”.

What makes Army unique is the “MAPS”, or the Military Academy Prep School. Its mission? “To provide academic, military and physical instruction in a moral-ethical military environment to prepare and motivate candidates for success at the United States Military Academy.”

From a basketball standpoint, that means that MAPS is essentially a redshirt year for incoming freshmen. The rest of the Patriot League does not permit any non-medical redshirts, which makes MAPS a great tool Spiker has in his arsenal. It comes as little surprise that many of Army’s freshmen cracked the lineup last season. “We knew what their record was at the prep school. They won the most games in its history. Now, that record has since been broken.”

Kyle Wilson, the Patriot League Rookie of the Year last season, was one of these freshmen who contributed from day one after having spent a year at MAPS. He led all freshmen in scoring averaging 13 points-per-game on 41.6% shooting from three. Furthermore, four Army freshmen ranked in the top ten in the league in scoring – a bright future at West Point.

A year at MAPS is also another year for a player to learn Spiker’s offensive system and bond with him off the court.

“I have a great relationship with coach [Spiker], a lot of one on one conversations,” explained Herbeck. “He has an open door policy. What’s great about coach is that he really cares about the development of his players in all facets of life.”

“Before I came to Army, I used to say I was a history buff, but now that I’m here I realize I know nothing – there’s so much history here,” said Spiker.

While true, Spiker will be looking to write his own kind of history at Army next season as the Black Knights are on a quest to win a Patriot League Championship and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, two areas that have eluded Army basketball throughout program history.

Indiana lands four-star Class of 2017 wing Justin Smith

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Indiana landed an athletic wing commitment on Monday night as four-star small forward Justin Smith pledged to the Hoosiers on Twitter.

The 6-foot-6 Smith is a native of Lincolnshire, Illinois and comes from Stevenson High School as he’s regarded as the No. 105 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings.

A high-flying wing who is great in the open floor, Smith should fit the Hoosiers’ uptempo system perfectly and if he’s able to get a more consistent perimeter jumper then he has a chance to be a really nice piece for Indiana.

Smith joins three-star guard Al Durham in Indiana’s recruiting Class of 2017.

Michigan State addingTom Izzo Hall of History wing in remodeled Breslin Center

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 22:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 22, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has already been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this fall and the longtime Spartans head coach is receiving another unique honor in the remodeled Breslin Center.

The school announced over the weekend that the Tom Izzo Hall of History will be added to the Breslin Center renovations as the building is supposed to be completed by the fall of 2017.

“The Tom Izzo Hall of History will become a great gathering place on our campus where together we can celebrate the excellence of Spartan Basketball and MSU Athletics,” athletic director Mark Hollis said in a release. “When this facility project is complete it will be the finest college basketball facility in the country, so it’s only fitting that Tom’s name will be a permanent part of it.”

Overall, this is a nice addition to the Breslin Center, especially since Izzo and Michigan State basketball will forever be associated with one another. It should be cool for fans to go through it and re-live great moments in Michigan State history and the wing is another nice recruiting tool that can help point out all of Izzo’s biggest accomplishments.

 

Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament moving to Orlando amid Zika concerns

Lon Kruger
(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Amid concerns over the Zika virus, the annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off announced a change in venue on Monday. Rather than staying on the island, the tournament will move to Orlando and all games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney.

The dates and teams will remain the same for the event as it will be played Thursday, Nov. 17, Friday, Nov. 18 and Sunday, Nov. 20. The field for the event includes Arizona State, Clemson, Davidson, Missouri, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma, Tulane and Xavier.

“We enjoy the beauty and accommodations that are afforded in Puerto Rico and wanted to make every effort in playing the event in San Juan, but the concern for student-athlete and spectator welfare became the primary driver in the decision,” Pete Derzis, senior vice president of ESPN Events said in the official release.  “We intend to return to Puerto Rico in the future.”

Puerto Rico is currently under a Level 2 alert for Zika according to the CDC. Since there have been cases of Zika on the island with native mosquitoes, it’s probably a smart move to eliminate all concerns over the virus if they can easily move the tournament elsewhere. It probably isn’t ideal for fans who purchased travel packages to Puerto Rico to watch the event, but it’s a small price to pay for the safety of everyone involved.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Company is also upset with the decision as Executive Director Ingrid Rivera Rocafort released a statement on Monday night.

“We are disappointed about this decision that we believe has been based on fear not the facts about Puerto Rico,” the statement read.

“There is no public health reason to cancel the Puerto Rico Tip Off or any sporting event in Puerto Rico. There is no doubt that our strong fan base and local spectators would have turned out to support their teams. Less than one percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million population has contracted Zika, a far cry from projections. The hype and misinformation is fostering irrational decisions.”

PHOTO: Purdue unveils statue of John Wooden outside Mackey Arena

John Wooden (Purdue Athletics)
Purdue Athletics
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John Wooden will forever be associated with the UCLA program for what he did while coaching there.

10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. Not bad, right?

What some people may forget is that before he got into coaching, Wooden was one of the best basketball players in the world. He played his collegiate ball at Purdue, where he was a three-time all-american and the 1932 National Player of the Year.

To honor Wooden’s legacy as one of the greatest Boilermakers ever, Purdue built a statue of Wooden and unveiled it in front of Mackey Arena this weekend:

“Not many people think of Johnny Wooden as a Boilermaker, but when I got here in 1957, some of the old-timers still remembered him as a player,” Jim Hicks, the alumnus that donated the statue, said. “I’m so delighted that people will see this statue and read his Pyramid of Success because I think the pyramid was his most important contribution.”

One of the neat touches of the statue: Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is right there for all to see.

North Carolina lands third commitment in 2017 class

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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North Carolina picked up their third commitment in the Class of 2017 on Monday in big man Brandon Huffman.

A four-star prospect who will play his final season of high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina, Huffman’s strength at this point in his development is as a defensive presence around the basket. He stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and should be able to help replace Kennedy Meeks, who graduates this spring.

Huffman’s development on the offensive end of the floor isn’t quite there yet. A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman is still learning how to be more influential on that end.

Huffman joins Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek in UNC’s 2017 class.