Zach Spiker is walking into one of the toughest situations in college basketball.
Hired to replace Jim Crews as the head coach at the United States Military Academy earlier this month, Spiker inherits an Army program that has never been to the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, the Black Knights have endured 23 consecutive losing seasons.
However, that is just part of what makes coaching at West Point difficult. When Spiker recruits players, he will be asking them to make a nine-year commitment: four years attending the academy then five more in active military service as an officer. It could even be a 10-year commitment if a recruit is deemed to need to spend a year at the USMA's prep school before enrolling at the academy.
At a time when the United States military is in conflict in the Middle East, it can be difficult to find teenagers who are willing to commit to Army when they know they could eventually see combat. Spiker realizes he needs to make a unique recruiting pitch, unlike anything he did during his time as an assistant at West Virginia, Winthrop and Cornell.
"My response to those prospective student-athletes and their parents who have reservations about sending their sons to West Point is that if they are ever put in a situation of conflict they will be part of the most prepared military unit in the world," Spiker said. "Our troops have the greatest training and spending four years at West Point makes our corps of cadets ready for anything that might happen. Everyone who might wind up in conflict will be completely prepared, as will the person standing in front of them, to the side of them and behind them."
Spiker served apprenticeships under John Beilein, Gregg Marshall and Steve Donahue. He feels spending the past two seasons with Donahue while helping Cornell win back-to-back Ivy League titles was particularly beneficial in preparing for the Army job.
"Every job has it unique set of challenges and certainly coaching at an Ivy League school does with the academic requirements somewhat limiting the pool of student-athletes that you can recruit," Spiker said. "You have to be able to work with what you have and make the best of it. You're not always going to get guys who fit a particular system. That's the case with the type of players we'll have at West Point.
"What makes Steve Donahue a great coach and that he takes the players he has and uses them in ways that make the team the most successful. That is what I plan to do here."
Army athletic director Kevin Anderson believes Spiker, despite being just 33 years old, is the perfect fit for the Cadets.
Spiker inherits a veteran team that includes seven seniors, giving hope that Army can break its Pittsburgh Pirates-like streak of sub-.500 finishes after going 11-19 last season. The Black Knights will have to drastically improve their offense, though, as they finished 333rd out of 344 Division I teams last season with an 86.6 adjusted offensive efficiency.
"We were looking for somebody who was a high-energy guy and who also has the high intellect necessary to relate to the West Point athlete," Anderson said. "We also wanted somebody who could win right away. We have a talented group of upperclassmen. We feel like our program is just getting on its feet right now and we're ready for someone to build on that. We conducted a national search and spoke to a tremendous pool of candidates. Zach's name was the one that kept rising to the top."
Army has been the proving ground for other young coaches who went on to greatness, including Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. While no one is ready to say Spiker is going to reach those heights--he won't coach his first college game until Nov. 13 when the Black Knights visit Virginia Military Institute--he did get a strong recommendation from the First Brother-in-Law, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, brother of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Robinson coached at Brown before taking over at Oregon State prior to last season and went head-to-head against Spiker on the Ivy League recruiting trail.
"I talked to Craig and he told me how Brown would be on to a kid that they thought nobody else knew about but it always seemed like Zach wound up knowing about the kid, too," Anderson said. "That obviously made a big impression as we were sorting through the candidates."
Building on Success in Ann Arbor
This season, it is safe to assume no one will take Michigan for granted.
The Wolverines had a major breakthrough last season in John Beilein's second year as coach. They went from setting a school record for losses by going 10-22 in 2007-08 to finishing 21-14 and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a dozen years, where they beat Clemson in the first round as a No. 10 seed knocking off a No. 7 before succumbing to Oklahoma in the second round.
Beilein is well aware that Michigan surprised many observers by getting to the NCAAs last season. He also knows the expectations are much greater this season because the Wolverines are expected to make the tournament.
Beilein insists his team's mindset will not change.
"I sent all of our players a long note just before they came back to campus for the start of the fall semester and told them that we can't lose that hard edge that we developed last season," Beilein said. "We were the hunters last season and we're going to be the hunters again this year. They can forget the preseason projections and all that stuff. As long as I'm the coach here, we're always going to be the hunters."
Michigan should be one of the better teams in the Big Ten as it returns four starters, led by junior shooting guard Manny Harris. He was a first-team all-Big Ten selection last season when he averaged 16.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 32.9 minutes a game. Harris was 22nd in the nation in percentage of possessions (31.8) and 43rd in assist rate (32.2).
Harris is complemented inside by senior power forward DeShawn Sims (15.5/6.9/0.7/30.6). He was 40th in turnover rate (10.6) and 81st in percentage of shots (30.7).
The Wolverines also have two sophomore starters back in small forward Zack Novak (6.7/3.6/1.4/28.2) and shooting guard Stu Douglass (6.3/1.5/2.1/22.5).
Arizona transfer Laval Lucas-Perry (6.5/1.7/1.2/18.3) saw significant action at point guard last season as a freshman after he became eligible following the end of the first semester. However, he will be pushed by freshman Darius Morris, who was the John Wooden California Player of the Year last season at Windward High School in Los Angeles after averaging 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
"We not only have a bunch of talented players but talented players who are cohesive and who work well together," Beilein said. "We built something pretty special last season and our guys seem hungry to build off what we did. We had a good year but we still finished seventh in the Big Ten. It's not like we have a lot of players back from a team that finished first or second. We understand that and that is why I'm confident our guys won't get caught up in any pre-season predictions."
Michigan has had its share of great basketball moments, such as winning the 1989 national championship after assistant coach Steve Fisher took over at the start of the NCAA Tournament. Coach Bill Freider was fired by athletic director Bo Schembechler following his announcement that he was leaving at season's end to become the coach at Arizona State.
However, basketball has usually been an afterthought in Ann Arbor, where football is king. Beilein, though, is trying to create a niche for basketball.
"I think there is a place for basketball here and there was a lot of enthusiasm generated for our team as last season wore on," Beilein said. "What we're trying to build here is a team that is loved by our students and loves our students. I saw the culture start to change last season and the way you change is by building a program that consistently makes it to the NCAA Tournament. That's what we're trying and last year was a good start."
Also in the Big 11...
Penn State is another Big Ten school where football is king. However, the Nittany Lions were able to draw some attention to their basketball program last winter by winning the NIT and setting a school record for victories with a 27-11 mark.
Coach Ed DeChellis is a Penn State alumnus and understands State College isn't going to turn into a basketball-crazed town any time soon.
"You can't have one really good year and expect everybody to be on board," DeChellis said. "We experienced winning last season and it was a great thing for our program. After you do it once, you've got to do it again and then again and again. You can't build a program with one good season.
"The NIT championship meant a lot. It was a reward for a lot of hard work by our kids. However, we want our program to be known for more than one NIT championship. We want to be the type of program that is continually fighting to get into the NCAA Tournament and contending for Big Ten championships."
The process has been slow for DeChellis, who has yet to get the Nittany Lions to the NCAAs in his six seasons.
The Nittany Lions return an outstanding backcourt in junior Talor Battle (16.7/5.3/5.0/37/4) and senior Stanley Pringle (12.8/3.1/2.8/30.8). Battle was 13th in percentage of minutes (92.6) and 95th in assist rate (29.6).
However, they will have a hard time finding a frontcourt presence to replace the graduated Jamelle Cormley. He was Penn State's heart and soul last season and provided the signature moment of the NIT when he stood at midcourt at Madison Square Garden and held the championship trophy aloft while sobbing.
DeChellis is confiden, though, his team will be good enough to draw people to the Bryce Jordan Center on those cold winter nights in Central Pennsylvania.
"We're very proud of our football tradition and we should be but we don't play football in the winter time," DeChellis said. "There's an opportunity now for our students and our fans to enjoy the winter here and watch us play."
Pack Planning to Push Pace
North Carolina State was a walk-it-up team in Sidney Lowe's first three seasons as coach, ranking 165th with a 66.8 adjusted tempo in 2006-07, 273rd with a 64.3 mark in 2007-08 and 266th with a 64.1 AT last season.
However, that is going to change this season for the Wolfpack. The roster now consists entirely of Lowe's recruits rather than those brought to Raleigh by Herb Sendek, who preferred a Princeton-style offense.
"People who are used to us playing a slowdown game are going to be surprised," sophomore guard Julius Mays said. "It's completely different this year. We want to run."
North Carolina State has gone 51-46 under Lowe, who helped the Wolfpack win a national championship in 1983. While there have been whispers that Lowe needs to have a better record than last year's 16-14 mark to keep his job, despite having only two starters back, Mays believes the attitude around the program is much better and has North Carolina State primed for a breakout season.
"Last year, there were more guys about themselves," Mays said. "This year, it's about a team that wants to win. Everything is about the team. We won't have anybody going against Coach Lowe or trying to get other guys to go against Coach Lowe. It feels a lot better."
Kansas will be without wing Brady Morningstar for the first nine games of the season as he was suspended following his arrest for drunken driving earlier this month. Yet, with the deepest roster in the nation, the Jayhawks are not likely to miss a beat with the senior out of the lineup.
That is because Kansas can plug Xavier Henry, who figures to be one of the nation's top freshmen this upcoming season, into the lineup.
"We have one less guy to choose from," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Early in the season, sometimes you rely on experience to get you through until young guys get comfortable. Now I think it's a matter where we will play somebody more than likely in that spot that doesn't have much experience. We'll allow them to play through their mistakes and maybe give them a little more freedom, so to speak."
Morningstar averaged 6.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 30.4 minutes a game last season.
With all five starters back from a team that went 27-8, the Jayhawks are favorites to win their second national championship in three seasons. However, Morningstar's arrest came not long after a number of his teammates got into an on-campus brawl with members of Kansas' football team, the continuation of tensions between the school's two most high-profile athletic teams.
"I have a hard time to not take this personally," Self said. "I think it's a big reflection of me and our program. I know for a fact we've worked hard for a lot of years to make sure even if we didn't play well, people thought we conducted ourselves right. I am very disappointed the action of a few can negate the efforts of many over time."
However, Self is not yet concerned that the problems away from the court could derail a potential championship season.
"We have our own problems like everyone else," Self said. "For the most part they've been great ambassadors for this university. I'm not proud of their actions lately but I still like our kids. I'm disgusted right now with some things that have transpired. Guys will be punished in a way I feel fit. It's been a distraction for me personally, but people deal with situations like this all the time. We've got to somehow work our way through it and be better because of it in the long run, which I think will be the case."
Some Preseason Picks
The conference coaches picked Villanova to win the Big East in their annual preseason poll. The Wildcats got 10 of the 16 first-place votes and were followed West Virginia, Connecticut, Louisville, Georgetown, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall, St. John's, Marquette, Providence, South Florida, Rutgers and DePaul.
West Virginia got five first-place votes and Connecticut received one.
Notre Dame senior center Luke Harangody was picked as the Preseason Player of the Year and was joined on the all-conference team by Cincinnati senior guard Deonta Vaughn, Georgetown sophomore center Greg Monroe, Marquette senior forward Lazar Hayward, Villanova senior guard Scottie Reynolds and West Virginia senior forward Da'Sean Butler.
Cincinnati freshman guard Lance Stephenson was chosen as the Preseason Rookie of the Year.
Kansas, not surprisingly, was the unanimous pick to win the Big 12 in that conference's coaches' poll. The Jayhawks were followed by Texas, which got Kansas coach Bill Self's vote, then Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Baylor, Nebraska and Colorado.
Two Jayhawks, junior center Cole Aldrich and senior guard Sherron Collins, shared Preseason Player of the Year honors and were joined on the all-conference team Iowa State junior forward Craig Brackins, Oklahoma sophomore guard Willie Warren, Oklahoma State junior wing James Anderson and Texas senior wing Damion James.
Iowa State senior forward Marcus Gilstrap, a transfer from Gulf Coast Community College in Florida, was chosen as Newcomer of the Year and Texas guard Avery Bradley was tabbed as Freshman of the Year.
Kentucky was picked to win the Southeastern Conference, getting 20 first-place votes from a panel of 25 SEC and national media members. Mississippi State received three votes and Tennessee got the other two.
Kentucky was chosen to win the Eastern Division and be followed by Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. In the Western Division, Mississippi State was the pick, followed by Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana State, Arkansas and Auburn.
Kentucky junior forward Patrick Patterson was tabbed as the Preseason Player of the Year and was joined on the all-conference team by South Carolina senior guard Devan Downey, Tennessee senior wing Tyler Smith, Mississippi State senior forward Jarvis Varnado and Mississippi sophomore guard Terrico White.
Cougars Favored in the MWC
Brigham Young was picked as the overwhelming favorite to win a fourth consecutive Mountain West Conference championship in the conference's preseason media poll. The Cougars received 23 of 24 first-place votes with the other going to San Diego State.
The Aztecs were picked to finish second, followed by Nevada-Las Vegas, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas Christian, Colorado State and Air Force.
BYU junior guard Jimmer Fredette was chosen as the preseason Player of the Year and was joined on the all-conference team by BYU's Jonathan Tavernari, San Diego State's Billy White, TCU's Zvonko Buljan and UNLV's Tre'Von Willis. Fredette averaged 16.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 33.0 minutes a game last season.
UNLV junior guard Derrick Jasper, a transfer from Kentucky, was chosen as Newcomer of the Year and San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard was picked as Freshman of the Year.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville was picked to defend its Atlantic Sun Conference title in a poll of media members, while the Dolphins and Kennesaw State tied for the top spot in the coaches' poll. Jacksonville senior guard Ben Smith was chosen as the Player of the Year after ranking 44th in the nation in percentage of minutes (89.6) and 82nd in fouls called per 40 minutes (1.9) last season while averaging 16.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 36.3 minutes a game.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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