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.

Zion Williamson’s commitment gives Duke perhaps its best recruiting class ever

Bob Blanchard, Basketball Hall of Fame
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Zion Williamson ended his recruitment and committed to Duke during a ceremony in his high school on Saturday night. The five-star forward from Spartanburg, SC is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron James, drawing tens of millions of YouTube views and sellout crowds around the country to watch him play.

Landing a top-five prospect and a 6-foot-6, 275-pound forward like Williamson is a huge get for the Blue Devils. It’s also a bit of a shocker to see Duke win this recruiting battle for Williamson as in-state Clemson was considered by many to be the favorite to keep the local star at home. Williamson became a legend in South Carolina, playing to giant crowds, winning multiple state titles and constantly getting recognized in public.

The local stardom turned national and eventually international. Drake got a customized Williamson jersey at one point. When Williamson went to Italy for the Adidas Eurocamp he was recognized there on the street. Millions of people witnessed Williamson’s Las Vegas showdown with LaVar and LaMelo Ball at the Adidas Summer Championships.

And although Williamson is a top-five talent who should help make Duke a better team in the ACC, he gives them perhaps their best recruiting class of all time. Williamson joins R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones in the Class of 2018 recruiting haul. Many scouting services have some combination of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson as the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in the country. Jones isn’t far behind and still in the top ten.

Watching Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones play together is going to be absolutely fascinating on so many levels. It’s four playmakers who are all talented with the ball in their hands and Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are all potential multi-positional players.

The basketball community has plenty of debates about how Williamson’s NBA stock will play out and how his intriguing skill level will be used at the college level. Watching Williamson live is like seeing a Pro Bowl defensive lineman who explodes off the ground for violent dunks. He’s been compared to throwback players like Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley.

What position will Williamson play? Will Williamson be at his best with the ball in his hands on offense? How will Williamson’s inconsistent perimeter jumper look? Will that perimeter jumper allow Williamson to play on the wing? Can Williamson power through bigger players at the college level? A man among boys at the high school level, Williamson will face legitimately-sized competition at every turn next season.

Duke is going to be riveting to watch no matter where Williamson plays. Williamson could wind up being a star at the college level who has legitimate NBA question marks. The Blue Devils have a potential all-conference player on their hands. We won’t know how Williamson truly looks until he’s fully in-shape and running with an offense that has been suited to help him succeed. Since Williamson has been battling injuries for his senior season, he hasn’t been at his best basketball shape all season. But once Williamson gets healthy and dialed in, he could be one of college basketball’s most fascinating case studies in recent memory.

The Blue Devils have a shocking amount of talent once again next season. It could be their best recruiting class ever — which is really saying something for a Coach K team in the one-and-done era. Now how will it all come together?

Wade scores 20, Kansas St beats No. 24 TCU 73-68

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MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Dean Wade scored 20 points and Kansas State beat No. 24 TCU 73-68 on Saturday.

Sophomore Makol Mawien added a career-high 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting. He had totaled just 13 points in Big 12 play this season for the Wildcats (14-5, 4-3).

Coming off a win over No. 4 Oklahoma earlier in the week, the Wildcats raced to a 7-0 lead.

TCU coach Jamie Dixon was called for a technical foul later in the first half, then drew another tech in the second half and was ejected. The Kansas State crowd serenaded Dixon as he walked off, and TCU assistant David Patrick took over.

Vlad Brodziansky scored 15 points for the Horned Frogs (14-5, 2-5).

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State: The win gives Kansas a solid four-game stretch with two wins over ranked opponents, three wins in total with the lone loss coming against Kansas.

TCU: The Horned Frogs have lost four of five since starting out the season 13-0.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

With the loss, TCU will more than likely fall out of the AP Top 25.

STATS AND STREAKS: The win gives Kansas State back-to-back wins over ranked opponents for the first time since the 2014-15 season, when it defeated Kansas and Iowa State in back-to-back outings.

No. 5 Duke rolls past Pittsburgh 81-54 for 4th straight win

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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Grayson Allen stepped confidently into the 3-point shot near the Duke bench and let it fly — only to see the ball go halfway down and then roll out of the rim. The senior could only chuckle.

It’s close, he figures. Don’t change anything.

That much was clear during the fifth-ranked Blue Devils’ 81-54 win against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Allen scored 16 points in the rout, his best output since the start of the 2018 calendar year and a sign that maybe — just maybe — Allen is nearing the end of this monthlong rebellion by his suddenly wayward shot.

“I’ve had like nine of those in the last three games,” Allen said of the second-half 3 that rolled out, “that just hit the front of the rim, go halfway in and bounce out. When you’re about a half-inch off like that, there’s nothing you need to change or anything. You just keep shooting it.”

Freshman Wendell Carter Jr. had 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting to lead the Blue Devils (17-2, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 52 percent and cruised to a second easy win against the Panthers (8-12, 0-7) in 10 days.

That certainly gave Allen — who as a freshman provided the desperately needed spark to help the Blue Devils beat Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA title game — a low-pressure day to re-find his missing shooting rhythm. He made 5 of 11 shots and 4 of 10 from 3-point range in 26 minutes; he was shooting just 30 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point range in six ACC games coming in.

“The games before he went into this kind of shooting slump, he’d been shooting the ball great,” Carter said. “I believe it’s going to fall at some point. We just keep telling him to keep shooting and I’m sure it’s going to be there.”

Allen also showed his familiar emotional edge, most notably when he bounced up from taking an early hard fall on a flagrant breakaway foul and yelling a couple of frustrated expletives while being led away as the referees began to a replay review.

“That fire was already there,” Allen said, “but it added to it.”

Duke finished with 24 points off turnovers to go with 18 second-chance points after controlling the boards, leading by as many as 34 points midway through the second half. Parker Stewart scored 15 points for the Panthers, who shot 41 percent.

“They’re an elite team,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said, “so we knew it was a tall challenge when we got here.”

BIG PICTURE

Pittsburgh: Pitt continues hurtling toward a bottom-of-the-ACC finish. The Panthers arrived with its worst start in ACC play — this is their fifth season — and now they have their first 0-7 start in a conference since losing to Louisville for an 0-7 Big East mark in January 2012.

Duke: This was a game for Duke to fine-tune things moreso than a question of whether the Blue Devils would win their fourth straight. Among the positives: Duke’s defense was frequently active and getting hands in passing lanes — particularly in the first half — and pestered the Panthers into three 10-second backcourt violations.

SIMILAR STARTS

Duke’s blowout wins against Pitt followed some familiar first-half routes.

In the 87-52 win on Jan. 10, Duke led 50-24 at halftime while Pittsburgh had more turnovers (10) than made baskets (9). In this one, Duke led 48-26 at halftime while Pitt again had more turnovers (11) than field goals (10). Duke also had a lot of points off turnovers (22 in the first game, 19 Saturday) by the break.

The best news for Pitt? The Panthers only committed four second-half turnovers with the outcome long determined.

“In the second half, I thought we did a much better job of taking care of the ball, and that allowed us to play better,” Stallings said, adding: “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

DeVoe leads No. 20 Clemson to 67-58 win over Irish

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey believes his program had been perfect against Clemson because during the crucial stretches, it was the Fighting Irish who made the biggest plays.

“Tonight, they made plays,” Brey said after No. 20 Clemson beat Notre Dame for the first time, 67-58 on Saturday.

Gabe DeVoe had 17 points including a critical 3-pointer with 3:18 left to keep the Tigers out front. Shelton Mitchell had 10 of the Tigers’ final 20 points after Notre Dame cut an 11-point deficit to 47-46, and freshman Amir Simms hit a 3 from the right corner with just over a minute left that proved the winning blow for the Tigers (16-3, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).

The victory came after an awful-looking injury to Clemson captain Donte Grantham, whose right knee buckled after getting fouled from behind.

Grantham, a 6-foot-8 senior who averages 14 points a game, had 11 before going down with 10:54 left in the game. Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Grantham would have an MRI on the knee.

“He’s had a very good year and we’re hopeful it’s not over for us,” Brownell said.

Notre Dame (13-7, 3-4) lost its fourth straight. The Fighting Irish had a 5-0 all-time mark over the Tigers, and Clemson barely escaped continuing a second streak of failure in the same week: The Tigers fell to 0-59 all-time at Chapel Hill with their 87-78 loss to North Carolina on Tuesday night.

DeVoe said the Tigers learned from the slow start in that game to break out on top, 21-10 against the Fighting Irish. When things tightened up, he said Clemson’s experience came through.

“Knowing how to finish games has really helped us out a lot this year,” he said.

Mitchell and Marcquise Reed scored 12 points each for the Tigers. Mitchell caught fire after Notre Dame’s rally with a 3-pointer and a driving layup to extend the lead to 52-46.

TJ Gibbs led Notre Dame with 18 points. Matt Farrell, who came in averaging 18 points per game, ended with six on 2-of-11 shooting.

“He had an off night shooting,” Brownell said of Farrell. “But I’d like to think some of it was our defense.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish dug themselves an early hole as Clemson made seven of its first eight shots. But Notre Dame answered, gradually cutting the lead to 31-30 as it tightened up the defense and found its shooting touch. … Notre Dame shot just two free throws.

Clemson: When the Tigers are hitting shots, they’re tough to beat. Unfortunately for Clemson, it doesn’t always happen that way. DeVoe, Reed and Grantham all had open 3s early on as the Tigers forged a double-digit lead. Clemson went cold after that, making just four of its last 16 shots of the opening half to open the door for the Fighting Irish. Clemson did just enough to stay in front.

WELCOME BREAK

Brey believes his team’s week off — the Irish don’t play until next Saturday — will help them physically and mentally before trying to even their ACC record. “I think 4-4 (in the ACC) would feel like 8-0 to this group,” Brey said.

TREE TIME

Clemson great and NBA standout Wayne “Tree” Rollins was the featured former Tiger during a pregame alumni celebration. Rollins was recently inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor, the highest athletic award the university gives out. Rollins played 18 years in the NBA, 11 with the Atlanta Hawks. Rollins finished his degree from Clemson two years ago.

Jackson-Cartwright, No. 14 Arizona rally for 73-71 win at Stanford

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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Rawle Alkins made a go-ahead layup with 38 seconds remaining, and No. 14 Arizona held on for a 73-71 comeback win Saturday over Stanford to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-12.

Allonzo Trier, who led the Wildcats (16-4, 6-1 Pac-12) with 21 points, added three free throws in the final 18 seconds for Arizona, which trailed by 11 points midway through the second half. Dusan Ristic added 18 points and nine rebounds and Alkins scored 13 for the Wildcats, who have won 16 straight against the Cardinal.

Reid Travis had 20 points for Stanford (11-9, 5-2), which had defeated No. 16 Arizona State three days earlier and was on a five-game winning streak.

The game was tied at 46 when Stanford went on an 11-0 run that included a technical foul on Arizona coach Sean Miller. The Wildcats responded with their own 11-point run, tying the game on a 3-pointer by Trier with 6:20 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Wildcats have won 13 of their last 14, but this one was closer than most of the 12 other victories — which had come by an average margin of 11 points.

Stanford: The Cardinal’s five-game winning streak was their longest in conference play in a decade.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats return home, where they have not lost in 10 games this season, to face Colorado on Thursday.

Stanford: The Cardinal start their annual two-game trip to Los Angeles on Wednesday at Southern California. Stanford is 2-5 away from home this season, including 0-4 at neutral sites.