By Bob Socci
Practice began and ended the same way for Zach Spiker and the Army Black Knights. The young coach huddled his team around him at midcourt, and reminded them of their goal for the following afternoon.
“Six bricks,” he said. “We need six bricks.”
To the uninitiated, the sound of such a notion seems more than a bit strange. Here was the coach of a basketball team that since the start of conference play has led its league in scoring, primarily because of its proficient three-point shooting, asking for — demanding, really — more bricks.
But at West Point, since the youthful Spiker became the Cadets’ head coach a week and a half before the start of practice in the fall of 2009, a brick connotes a much different meaning than anywhere else basketball is played. Inside your local ‘Y’ or outdoors on nearby asphalt, the word is a universal descriptor for an ugly-looking shot.
A jumper from the wing so errant it, unintentionally, bangs off the backboard? A brick. A free throw that lands on the back iron with a loud thud, before rolling off right or left? Uh-huh, a brick. It never looks good, and usually sounds worse.
In Spiker’s way of thinking and speaking, the brick is raw material used to lay the foundation of a successful program. It has nothing to do with offense, and everything to do with defense.
To Army under Spiker, a brick means three straight stops. Hold the opposition scoreless on back-to-back-to-back possessions, and you’ve earned a brick.
The Black Knights led the Patriot League by averaging 71.2 points and 8.4 three-pointers per game, while shooting 39.5 percent outside the arc, in conference games this season. But until a final score is reached, the real measure of their effort — applying full-court pressure on the ball with a deep rotation of well-conditioned Cadets — is the brick.
All year long there’s been a correlation. Six bricks amount to victory. Back in October, the overall objective for the coming campaign was 160.
By Spiker’s official count, the Cadets had 154 of them through their first 28 games, entering last Saturday’s regular-season finale at Lehigh. Thus, to achieve both single-game and year-long goals, they needed six more bricks to add to all the others, labeled and stacked inside their locker room back at West Point.
Concretely or metaphorically, Spiker and his staff appear to be building something special. He was hired off the Cornell staff, as an assistant to then-Big Red coach Steve Donahue, following the bizarre exit of his predecessor. Weeks after signing a contract extension, Jim Crews was fired. Little was said at the time — and less since, though Crews has gone on to succeed the late Rick Majeris at Saint Louis — about the reasons behind it.
Whatever they were, Spiker’s reality was obvious. He inherited a veteran team in a program that hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1984-85 and had never reached .500 in Patriot League play, dating to 1990-91. Though the Black Knights were 6-8 in conference each of Crews’s final two years, Spiker needed to create a pipeline of young talent that could withstand the rigors of service academy life and compete successfully at Division I.
Just as Navy had done under former Army assistant Don DeVoe in the 1990s, when the Midshipmen won three Patriot League titles, Spiker started recruiting to two rosters: the one at West Point and another at the academy’s prep school. The latter would be essential for long-terms success. It’s where players could form on-and-off-court bonds, become exposed to strict military and academic standards and improve their skills in a basketball system similar to the one Spiker was implementing on the Hudson.
Three years later, that effort is finally paying off. In the form of bricks — productively, not pejoratively — and victories.
When Spiker addressed his team last Friday on the eve of its nationally-televised appearance at Lehigh, the Cadets were riding a school-record five-game Patriot League winning streak. They were assured of Army’s first non-losing finish in 28 seasons. And they already clinched the academy’s first winning league record since 1987, when Kevin Houston led the country in scoring and West Point belonged to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Spiker complemented the outstanding senior Ella Ellis, a first-team All-Patriot League choice last year, by starting four freshmen. Five others saw game action. Three of those nine plebes, as they’re known on the academy post, earned conference Rookie of the Week honors.
None more than five-time winner Kyle Wilson, Army’s highest-scoring freshman since 1992-93. On Monday, he was announced as the Patriot League’s Rookie of the Year. Classmate Kyle Toth joined Wilson on the All-Rookie team. That same day, Ellis repeated as a first teamer and Spiker was recognized as conference Coach of the Year.
The Cadets came up short of six bricks on Saturday, falling by six points, 81-75. Nonetheless, at 15-14 overall and 8-6 in the Patriot League, their pieces are in place to keep building on what Spiker started.
“When we returned from our (late-December) trip to Texas, I told our guys that I believe we’re on the verge of something good here,” Spiker said last week. “When we were 1-3 in the Patriot League, I told them that every goal we’ve set can still be achieved.”
Some, Spiker admits, would seem “a little lofty” to outsiders. One has remained unrealized throughout the academy’s history.
Five schools who’ve played Division I basketball since 1947-48 have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament. They include St. Francis (N.Y.), Northwestern, William & Mary and The Citadel. And, of course, West Point, despite a history highlighted by the likes of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. Knight left as Army coach to lead Indiana to three national titles. His former point guard, Kryzewski coached the Cadets to the 1978 NIT, before guiding Duke to four NCAA championships.
The idea of this year’s Black Knights finally playing well into March is more than a little lofty. But thankfully for the rest of us, everything at service academies is a little loftier than everywhere else.
Starting Wednesday, when it hosts American in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament, fourth-seed Army is three wins from the unprecedented. Or, to see it as Spiker does, at least 18 bricks away.
Two weeks ago in Washington, his Cadets beat the Eagles, 72-58. By doing so, they snapped a 14-game losing skid at AU’s Bender Arena.
They did it with a season-high eight bricks.
Bob is the radio voice of Navy football and called play-by-play for the Midshipmen in basketball for 12 years. He and partner Chris Spatola (West Point ’02) will call a Patriot League semifinal Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern on the CBS Sports Network.