The following feature story on the Army men's basketball team appeared in the Football Game Day Program on Nov. 6 vs. Air Force and was written by Brian Gunning.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - For most players and coaches the second year in a program is marked by increased stability and comfort within the system. That’s not necessarily the case for the Army men’s basketball team.
Second-year head coach Zach Spiker’s first season was one marked by a steep learning curve for both the first-time head coach and a roster stocked with seven seniors. Spiker took the reins of the program just two weeks before the start of preseason practice and was forced to implement his program on the fly while also trying to learn the nuances of West Point and Academy life.
While Spiker is imminently more familiar with West Point, the players and coaches surrounding him still have a lot to learn. All four of Army’s assistant coaches have been at West Point for less than a year, while seven seniors have been replaced with a fresh group of newcomers.
“A year ago we had seven seniors and a veteran coaching staff, and I was asking everyone where to go,” Spiker said. “Now we have eight freshmen and a transfer, and a brand new coaching staff. Instead of me asking questions, I’m answering questions. It definitely has been a very large transition year. We’re definitely looking forward to getting going.”
The biggest question mark facing Army this season is how to replace the production from the Class of 2010. The group accounted for 64.5 percent of the team’ s scoring and 65.0 percent of the squad’s rebounding.
“Someone is going to have to score the basketball,” Spiker said. “We lost multiple players that could score. One of the ways we replace that is bringing in guys who can really shoot it. We’re bringing in guys that are offensively skilled at multiple positions. Instead of having one focal point, for example going to Cleveland Richard a lot last year, I think if we have multiple scoring threats on the court at one time, and they can play well off each other, then we can be a more difficult team to defend.
“In some ways there is a naiveté with the youthful inexperience,” he continued. “They don’t know they’re replacing an all-time steals leader or shot blocker. They don’t look at it from that standpoint, and I think that’s good. They’re focused on doing what they’re asked. We do simple things, but if we do those things well we’ll take steps forward for our program, not only this year but for future teams.”
While the Black Knights are counting on some newcomers to pick up the slack, there are also some veteran options to become go-to players. Senior forward Jeremy Hence played in all 29 games last season. He averaged 5.0 points and is Army’s top returning rebounder at 4.1 boards per game. Junior guard Julian Simmons is the Black Knights’ top returning scorer after averaging 11.3 points per game, second-best on the team. Simmons enters his third season at West Point already ranked among the Black Knights’ all-time leaders in three-pointers with 100 triples in his first two seasons.
Simmons and Hence are just two returning players who should make an impact. Sophomore forward Ella Ellis was the only freshman to play in all 29 games last season, while sophomore guard Jason Pancoe earned more meaningful playing time as the season went on.
“Our strengths lie in our 2’s, 3’s and 4’s,” Spiker said. “Coming into his sophomore year, we’re looking for some improvement from Ella Ellis, and he’s worked hard. We have veteran leadership in Jeremy Hence and Nate Hedgecock at the four position. I think Julian Simmons is one of the best scoring guards in the Patriot League. He’s one of the better shooters in our league. He’s an experienced player now. He’s gone through two full seasons. He understands the Academy and how to manage his time. Behind him is a very mature sophomore in Jason Pancoe. He didn’t get a lot of minutes last year, but he hit a few threes at the end of last season and was able to get some confidence. We expect him to step in and contribute as well. That’s where our strengths are.”
While different players will have to take on increased roles in 2010-11, Spiker believes his team’s success this season will hinge on not how quickly a single go-to man is identified, but rather how fast the group can learn to play cohesively.
“A lot of our success will depend on how well we play together,” Spiker said. “That’s the only way we’ll have success this year is if we play together because there is no one person that you look at and say, ‘That guy is going to pick up the scoring slack.’ I think we expect the same out of Julian and other guys need to continue to move the ball and get good shots.”
Spiker and the Black Knights open the season on Friday, Nov. 12 versus Vassar at Christl Arena.