It speaks volumes to the rising expectations of Army basketball that after a somewhat convincing win over a Mountain West team to open 2014-15 Friday night, Zach Spiker was, well, non-plussed.
“It’s a good win, but it’s not a win where we’re going to say, ‘Man, that’s the best we’ve ever played’,” Spiker said, “We’re going to have to play better tomorrow night if we want to win.”
Army led by as many as 21 in the second half on its way to a 84-78 win over Air Force in the semifinals of the All-Military Classic at Christl Arena, the first time in the four years of the Classic that the Black Knights will be in the final after losing to Air Force to open the season in the previous three seasons. It was the first victory by a Patriot League team over a Mountain West squad since Dec. 5, 2000 when Lehigh beat Air Force (13 games).
Things got a little tricky late as Air Force got the lead all the way down to five in the closing seconds, but Army prevailed.
In fact, the Black Knights never trailed. Spiker still may look like the new kid on the block, but he’s now in his sixth season at West Point, and his free-flowing substitution and high pressure (which has now become a Spiker staple) was in full display in the opener. Twelve cadets played seven or more minutes with 10 of them scoring. The Black Knights connected on 13 three-pointers (on 25 attempts), eight in the first half.
Preseason Patriot League Player of the Year Kyle Wilson could not play for much of the offseason with a wrist injury and didn’t take many shots in the early-going, content to allow fellow junior Tanner Plomb to light Air Force up, as he connected on four three-pointers and had 14 points in the game’s first 12 minutes. Plomb finished with 22 points on 6-of-8 from behind the arc.
Army will continue to use its dribble-drive hybrid offense, but will be helped by some players that can also do damage around the rim, first and foremost 6-foot-10 junior Kevin Ferguson, who chipped in 10 points, six rebounds, and a couple of key blocks (he smashed the school record with 78 blocks last season). Six different players hit three-pointers, including freshman Luke Morrison, the only newcomer to see action Friday night.
“We basically play 10 guys, so I don’t think we’re that different from any other team,” Spiker said. “Everyone plays their reserves. We just maybe sub a little quicker and don’t let guys get stagnant on the bench and stay fresh. Fran O’Hanlon’s been shuttling guys in and out long before I was around. We’re working with a system that works well for us, and tomorrow will be a battle of two teams that play a similar style so we better get to bed and get some sleep.”
In case you aren’t aware of the history, Army’s 16-15 record in 2012-13 was its first winning record in 28 seasons, and it had gone 26 campaigns without a winning mark in conference play before now doing it back-to-back years. But with almost everyone returning from last season’s trip to the conference semifinals, the bar has been set extremely high at West Point these days. Christl Arena features new banners this season. There are four commemorating NCAA tournament appearances, but they are all on the women’s side. On the men’s sit six NIT banners (but none newer than 1978). So motivation shouldn’t be a problem this season, even with the high demands of service academy life.
Army advances to play VMI, last year’s All-Military Classic champion, Saturday night. The Citadel frustrated the young Keydets in the opening game Friday, but Trey Gardner hit a three-pointer with 17.1 seconds left to give them a 66-65 victory and set up what should be an entertaining final. The 60 possessions in the VMI-The Citadel contest was the lowest in the 10-year tenure of VMI coach Duggar Baucom (according to Ken Pomeroy), and VMI improved to 4-44 when scoring 69 points or less with him at the helm.