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.