Team preview: Army

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.


Ever heard of a guy named Les Wothke?

No? Well don't feel too bad. Wothke is not exactly a household name.

Wothke was the basketball coach at West Point for nearly a decade. He was there most of the 1980s, back before the Black Knights joined the Patriot League.

When people talk about Army's basketball history, they seldom mention Wothke's name. Most of the talk, especially where former coaches are concerned, is about Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, both of whom started their collegiate head-coaching careers on the banks of the Hudson River before going on to become coaching legends elsewhere.

Zach Spiker might someday rank up there with The General and Coach K in Black Knights basketball lore. For now, though, the Cadets' third-year head coach would be mighty happy just to become the next Les Wothke.

Army Black Knights

It was Wothke, back in his third season, who last coached Army to a winning season. Since that 16-13 record in 1984-85, Army has gone through a dry stretch that makes the Sahara seem like a watering hole.

Army hasn't had a winning season in the 26 seasons since Wothke's team did it. In 15 of those seasons they haven't even reached double digits in wins. Make that 17 if you toss out wins over non-Division I opponents.

Joining the then non-scholarship Patriot League in 1990 did nothing to improve the Black Knights' fortunes. In 20 seasons in the league, Army has finished in the second division of the standings 19 times. The lone exception came in the 2008-09 season, when a 6-8 league mark was good enough to give the Black Knights fourth place in the eight-team conference.

No team has finished last in the Patriot more than the nine times Army has done it. The Black Knights have also finished next to last six times. Not only is Army the only team that has never won the league title, it is the only team that has never even advanced to the conference tournament final.

With that historical backdrop as perspective, you can understand how Spiker can speak of making progress last year, even though the Black Knights' 11 wins -- three less than in his first season -- included one over Division III Vassar and six over schools who finished in the bottom 50 of the RPI.

"We're changing our culture," Spiker said. "Most of these guys have nothing to do with what happened in the past."


That culture change includes a significant youth movement, with as many as 10 newcomers battling for a spot on a roster that already includes six sophomores.

"We are going to be a very young team," Spiker said. "I'm not afraid to play young guys if they are ready to go. If young guys come in here and prove they are ready to play, they are going to get an opportunity to do so."

Who those young guys might be is sort of a mystery. During the preseason, Army's roster did not list any of the incoming freshmen. Aside from a pair of guards whom he mentioned when pressed about who might back up junior Jason Pancoe at the point, Spiker refused to talk about which newcomers might stick with the varsity.

Here is what Spiker does know heading into the season:

Senior guard Julian Simmons (12.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg), a 6-0 third-year starter, will be on one wing. Patriot All-Rookie team pick Josh Herbeck (5.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg), a 6-2 sophomore who ranked third in the league in three-point shooting percentage (.388), is the likely starter on the other wing.

Between them will be 6-1 junior point guard Pancoe (4.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg), who started 18 games there in an injury plagued season a year ago.

All three are solid three-point shooters, as is 6-5 junior four-man Ella Ellis (14.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg), the only Black Knight to start every game last season. As a team, Army shot 36.5 percent from the arc, second in the league. The Black Knights's 8.8 made threes per game was tops in the Patriot.

Inside was a different story, though. Simmons and Pancoe actually shot worse inside the arc that outside. No team in the league shot it as poorly inside the three-point line than the undersized Black Knights.

Spiker hopes Ellis, who added some muscle in the offseason, can help Army improve in that area.

"Ella was a bright spot for us last year, but physical play inside against bigger guys wore him down as the season went on. He has gotten stronger. Hopefully he can finish more around the rim," Spiker said.

Junior Jordan Springer (1.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg), who started the first 19 games last season before moving to the bench, is the leading candidate for the fifth starting spot. At 6-5 and 207 pounds, Springer is woefully undersized for a post, even in the Patriot League. But Spiker doesn't have a lot of options. Not including any of its mystery freshmen, Army has only one player taller than 6-7 on the roster.

That player, 6-10 sophomore Brian Hornstein (1.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg), has some skills and the "potential to help us," Spiker said. But he is probably going to need to add to his 204-pound string bean frame for that to happen.

Senior Josh Johnson (0.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg), a 6-5 forward who saw limited time in 20 games last season after spending his first two years at West Point with the junior varsity, will get a chance to increase his minutes.

Pat Harris (0.5 ppg, 0.5 rpg), the 6-5 senior son of former Army coach Pat Harris, and 6-7 sophomore Andrew Stire (0.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg) will also have a chance to compete for minutes in the frontcourt.

There is a little more experienced depth in the backcourt, though that is a dubious distinction.

Chris Welker (2.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg), a 6-3 sophomore who saw minutes in every game as a freshman, will challenge for a spot on the wing. Cartavious Kincade (1.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg), a 6-2 sophomore, played in 22 games last season, with his minutes increasing significantly late in the season and 5-11 sophomore shooting guard Alex Godette (2.3 ppg, 0.7 rpg) will also compete for minutes in Spiker's backcourt rotation.

Pancoe is the only true point guard with any experience. Spiker said 6-1 freshman Max Lenox, and 6-0 transfer Aaron Deister are two newcomers who could see minutes backing Pancoe.

Lenox, who originally signed with George Washington spent last season prepping at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy after he was granted a release from his letter of intent after Karl Hobbs left GW.

Deister, who played his high school ball at Dayton (Ohio) Christian, transferred to West Point from Concordia, an NAIA power, where he did not see any game action as a freshman in the 2009-10 season.






With a relatively weak schedule, it is possible Army will improve on last season's 11 wins. Five of the Black Knights' non-conference foes had RPIs of 300 or higher last season. Air Force (114) and Central Connecticut (147) are the only non-league foes who finished in the RPI top 150.

But history has shown even in seasons where it had relative success out of conference, Army has still struggled in the Patriot League.

Take Spiker's first season at West Point as an example. Against a similarly lackluster non-conference schedule, the Black Knights won nine games against non-conference Division I foes. They still went 4-10 in conference play, finishing in what has become Army's customary spot at the bottom of the Patriot League heap.

With almost every other team in the league returning most of its key players, its tough to see this inexperienced, undersized bunch doing a whole lot better in terms of wins and losses.

The saving grace this season might be that Navy is just as small and just as inexperienced. Sweeping the season series with the archival Midshipmen -- something Army has not done in 19 years, would probably go a long way toward ensuring a finish ahead of Navy in the standings -- something that has only happened four times in that same span.

That is a fairly modest goal. It is also a realistic challenge.

Spiker doesn't say much about wins and losses when he talks about his goals for the season. Right now he is concentrating on more simple aspirations.

"We want to get better. Not every year, but every day," Spiker said. "If we can do that, we will like the results."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.