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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.

Kansas forward arrested on suspicion of battery

Douglas County Sheriff
Douglas County Sheriff
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Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was charged today with one count of battery.

According to a press release sent out by the Douglas County district attorney’s office, police received a call around 1 a.m. from a woman who said that “her boyfriend had struck her and pushed her down stairs during an argument.”

The DA also included a note in the statement that, essentially, said the only reason Bragg wasn’t charged with domestic violence – he was initially arrested on suspicion of domestic battery – was due to a technicality. Since the couple is only dating and not married, under Kansas law, the assault does not constitute domestic violence.

Battery is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison.

Bragg, who was still in custody until an appearance in court on Friday afternoon, was held on bond of $500. Bragg plead not guilty.

“We are still trying to gather information,” head coach Bill Self told The Star. “But it is a charge which we take very seriously.”

Bragg is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that lost his spot in the starting lineup earlier this year. He is averaging 7.8 points and 5.3 boards in 16 minutes. No. 3 Kansas hosts Nebraska on Saturday.

St. John’s to lose center to transfer

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 13: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats has his shot blocked by Yankuba Sima #35 of the St. John's Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center on February 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Villanova won 73-63. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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Yankuba Sima will transfer out of the St. John’s program, the school announced on Friday.

“I want to thank the coaching staff and the administration for all of their support since I arrived at St. John’s,” said Sima. “I enjoyed my experience at St. John’s, but right now I feel it is best for me to explore options that will be a better fit for me as I work toward my goals.”

“We wish Yankuba the best of luck,” said head coach Chris Mullin. “I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him, but we respect and understand it. He’s a good basketball player and a good person with a bright future ahead.”

Sima started 26 of the 34 games he played with the Johnnies, including eight starts this season. He was averaging 6.0 points and 3.5 boards this year.

Frank Martin comments on Sindarius Thornwell suspension

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina head coach Frank Martin commented on Sindarius Thornwell’s suspension during his call-in show on Thursday.

Thornwell, who was the leading scorer for the 8-0 No. 19 Gamecocks, was suspended indefinitely last Sunday. Martin has yet to provide a reason for the suspension.

“He’s been with us at practice, he’ll travel with us, he’s excited about our team, his role on the team,” he said, according to South Carolina’s 247 site. “Sindarius is one of my favorite guys I’ve ever come across. He messed up and it is what it is. He’s like a son to me. He messed up and he’s owned up to his mess up.”

“Outside of that, I’m not going to get into anything else. He has my full support. Our job is to prepare our team to play, we don’t prepare individual players to play. It’s no different to someone rolling an ankle. We’re down because of a bad decision. We’ll be fine.”

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.0 boards and 4.1 assists. The Gamecocks play Seton Hall in New York City on Monday night.

UCF star point guard out indefinitely with thumb injury

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 22: B.J. Taylor #1 of the Central Florida Knights carries the ball up the court in front of Ryan Boatright #11 of the Connecticut Huskies in the first half during the game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on January 22, 2015 in Storrs, Connecticut.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Sophomore guard B.J. Taylor is out indefinitely after suffering a hand injury, UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins confirmed at a press conference earlier today.

According to a report from 247 Sports’ UCF site, the injury is a broken thumb, which was suffered in Saturday’s win over UMass.

Taylor is not expected to miss the rest of the season but will be out for an extended amount of time. He missed all of 2015-16 season dealing with a foot injury.

On the season, Taylor, a 6-foot-2 point guard, was having an all-AAC caliber season, averaging 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 boards.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?