Spiker transforms Army men into Patriot League contender

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) Zach Spiker winced at the score after the most intense game of the season: Navy 75, Army 66.

That it came in front of a home crowd of 5,291 last Saturday, largest in the history of West Point’s Christl Arena, made it that much more difficult for Army’s head coach.

”We’re working hard to develop a culture of winning, an attitude of believing you can win any and every game,” said Spiker, in his sixth year at Army. ”We’re getting close to turning that corner. We did a few years ago. We’ve got to get back to that point.”

Reminders of past glory hang all around the 30-year-old home court: six NIT banners from the 1960s, when the tournament was as tough as any and Army basketball made headlines with Bob Knight as head coach and Mike Krzyzewski his stalwart captain.

Knight departed with a 102-50 record in six seasons after his only losing campaign in 1970-71. Krzyzewski, who graduated from West Point in 1969, succeeded Dan Dougherty as head coach in 1975 and posted three winning seasons and a 73-59 record in five years before leaving for Duke.

Since Coach K left in 1980, Army has had only two winning seasons: in 1984-85 with its all-time leading scorer Kevin Houston and two years ago under Spiker, when it finished 16-15.

Now, Army is 6-1 on the road and sits 11-5 overall, though only 2-3 in the Patriot League as key contributors have been injured.

The Black Knights opened the season with five straight wins before Krzyzewski and his then-No. 2 Duke Blue Devils halted the streak. Army was within single digits in the second half before fading and losing by 20.

Beating the program that helped shape him into Coach K was both bittersweet and an eye-opener.

”I think Army could play anybody that we played and have a chance to beat them,” said Krzyzewski, whose 1976-77 Army team won its first seven games.

The Black Knights soon proved their old coach right, defeating Southern California 85-77 in overtime in Los Angeles.

”We can play with any team on our schedule. I think we’ve proven that in our nonconference schedule,” said Spiker, only the second Army coach to win at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. Knight had a six-season run from 1965-71. ”I have tremendous confidence in these guys and have to make sure they have confidence in themselves.”

They do.

Kyle Wilson, a 6-foot-4 swingman, leads the league with 20.1 points per game. Center Kevin Ferguson has a school-record 135 career blocks. Forward Tanner Plomb averages 13.9 points per game. These Black Knights are a determined bunch.

They lead the Patriot League in scoring at 77.5 points a game and scoring margin (plus-5.9), and rank second in blocks (4.1), assists (15.2), steals (7.8) and turnover margin (plus-1.90).

”Any time you can score you’ve got a pretty good team,” Navy coach Ed DeChellis said. ”And they defend. They’re physical guys. I like their team.”

Spiker’s starting lineup consists of five juniors – Wilson, Plomb, Ferguson, guard Dylan Cox, and forward Larry Toomey. And when they need a break, Spiker has another five guys to throw in there, often changing lines en masse.

”It’s how conditioned we are,” Wilson said. ”I think we’re able to run other teams into the ground. That’s what we like doing, looking at the other team having their hands on their knees and we have five more people coming on the court.”

The Black Knights have 10 players averaging at least five points, though two are out for the season, including guard Max Lennox, who led the team in assists (96) and steals (38) as a freshman, with an injured Achilles.

Spiker’s recruiting prowess has been key, helped in no small part by the academy’s history. Wilson, from Mission Viejo, California, said he never heard of West Point until he was recruited, and Plomb’s first visit to the academy from his home outside Milwaukee made it an easy sell in spite of the rigors of military life.

”It was just amazing,” Plomb said. ”They were talking about making history, kind of building it back up to what it used to be under Coach Knight and Coach K.”

And taking it a step further.

Also hanging from a wall at Christl Arena are banners from the four appearances the Army women have made in the NCAA tournament. The men have never qualified.

”That’s what our goal has been since we got here,” Plomb said. ”That’s what we talk about. I think it would be a huge accomplishment. I think it would really put Army basketball on the map.”

AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard and Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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