Is This the Year for Army?

Army joined the Patriot League in 1990. At the time, this was seen as a chance for Army to compete against like-minded academic schools with similar athletic programs. It appeared that men's basketball would especially benefit.

Army had spent several seasons in the MAAC conference, and despite some limited success, had seen their results getting worse and worse. Certainly, joining the Patriot would pave the way to basketball success with a few visits to the NCAA tournament.

Well, you know how that's worked.

Instead of improvement, Army has actually been less competitive and has usually struggled to not become the league doormat year after year. Four coaches have come and gone; yet the results have stayed remarkably consistent. Things looked even bleaker when Jim Crews was let go and Zach Spiker was hired to pick up the pieces right before practices for the season began.

Yet, on the eve of conference play Army finds itself at 10-4 and with a reasonable chance at doing something almost forgotten around these parts. Let's ignore for a minute that chance being a berth in the NCAA tournament, which fans know has never happened for the Cadets. Instead, it's the real chance of finishing a season over .500.

Army hasn't had a winning season since 1985. Think for a minute how long that is. Ronald Reagan was the president. It was the year of New Coke, Pete Rose breaking the record for career hits, and Army Football going to a bowl game for the second year in a row. Many cadets that graduated that year have completed their Army career and are retired or moved on to other ventures. Yep, we're talking a long time here.

So while this may be the year, fans would be well advised to calm down a bit. Army was in this spot just three years ago, and even Dino Gaudio had a team standing 9-5 in the beginning of January. The minefield both seasons was the team's performance in league play. The task is no less daunting this year.

On the surface, it doesn't look like there are many bumps coming up. Perennial league powers American and Holy Cross are struggling at 3-11. Colgate and Bucknell have also hit some hard times. But the case can be made that these teams have played a tougher schedule than Army and may be better prepared for conference play. On the bright side these teams have also lost to teams Army has defeated. So what does it all mean?

For one thing, the Cadets need to clean up their propensity to have segments of every game when it looks like that offensively; they've never played the game before. Even when they win, there are wide gaps of ineffective play. The game against Brown is a perfect example. The Black Knights held a brick-shooting clinic in the first half. Ball handling was tentative, leading to hurried heaves to beat the shot clock. In the second half, the offense played much better, yet down the stretch Army went another 3-4 minutes without scoring and let Brown hang around until the final minute.

This pattern has held true even in Army's losses. An 18-0 run by Portland, and bad 5-6 minute segments against Buffalo and SMU cost the team dearly. If Army was able to limit these dead times, a case could be made that they would have only 1-2 defeats this season.

The good news is that the defense has been stellar all season. Teams have to work each possession to get a shot, and the defense against opposing guards has been terrific. Army appears quicker defensively this year than they have been since their entrance in the Patriot league.

So what will win league games? The Cadets need to take care of the ball. More than anything, the win against Brown was a result of having only 5 turnovers, and only one in the second half (on a shot clock violation.). Previous seasons have seen huge ball-handling problems, leading to a large number of turnovers and hurried, low-percentage shots on offense. Since rebounding is still not a strength, limiting opponent's possessions will be a huge help through lack of Cadet turnovers.

They also need to pound the paint. Even though Army's bigs still look uncomfortable handling the ball, things are still much better than in previous years. Army has been soft underneath for many years, and their ability to score in the paint could make the difference in many league games.

And the biggest thing needed to win is Army's efforts at the free throw line. Results thus far have been dismal, and continued struggles will certainly spell doom in conference games. Many games are likely to come down to the wire, and a couple of misses may be the difference.

But overall, Army seems poised to make a run this year. It's unlikely that there will be any blowouts, as the defense will keep the team in games even when things are not going well on the other end. If the offense is able to be more consistent, this may be the year when Army can finally find itself on ESPN playing for the title.

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