Breaking news: Army men’s basketball to play in postseason

By Ken McMillan
Times Herald-Record

WEST POINT – Zach Spiker could hardly contain his excitement, listening to the words that people associated with Army men’s basketball have longed to hear.
“On behalf of the College Insiders Tournament, we would love to invite Army basketball into this year’s CIT and bring postseason basketball back to West Point for the first time since 1978,’’ selection chairman Jamie Kachmarik told the team over a speaker phone on Tuesday afternoon.
With that, the team room in the Kimsey Center, packed with about 45 people, broke out into huge applause.
“Mr. Kachmarik, as you can tell from that applause that is a resounding yes. We happily accept,’’ Spiker replied.
Army’s long wait to return to postseason play is over. The full 32-team CIT bracket will not be announced until Sunday once conference tournaments are concluded, though the Black Knights may learn of their opponent before then. The CIT emphasizes regional play in the early rounds that begin Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Army officially announced its selection on Thursday morning.
It’s not the NCAA tournament, or even the National Invitation Tournament, which Army played in eight times, the last coming in 1978, but it is clearly a positive step for a program that has rid itself of a haunting past that included 27 consecutive losing seasons until a talented Class of 2016 came along.
“I am just very happy to see them rewarded for their dedication and hard work and commitment to the program,’’ said Spiker, now in his seventh season as head coach.
Army learned of its CIT bid two days after a stunning 60-38 loss to eventual champion Holy Cross in the Patriot League semifinals on Sunday, putting an end to NCAA tournament hopes once again.
“After a loss that we had Sunday,’’ said senior Tanner Plomb, “it was kind of hard to digest everything. Hearing news like this definitely brings a little light onto the next couple weeks. It is definitely disappointing (not getting to the NCAAs) … but being able to play in the postseason is something special no matter what tournament. To bring that back to men’s basketball is exciting.’’
That was the message shared with the team by party attendees Pat Harris, Dr. Jim Oxley and Bill Schutsky, three links to the last times Army played in the postseason.
“Thanks a lot, thank you very much,’’ Harris told the team, as a proud alum. He played on the 1978 NIT team that lost to Rutgers 72-70, and later went on to coach Army. “Everybody has been waiting for this for a long time. We do appreciate it so thank you very much.’’
Oxley, the 1969-70 team captain, played on three of Army’s NIT teams. He told the players they have an opportunity to reach a milestone of 20 wins with just one more victory, cementing their place in team history.
“I am just so excited for the coach and the players, especially the seniors who have been through this for the last four years, with that pressure on their head to make it to a postseason tournament,’’ Oxley said. “This couldn’t be better. We’re very excited for them. We know they are going to do well. I think this will round out a very successful four years for the seniors, and be a platform the program to continue to improve.’’
Schutsky, a 1968 team captain who played in the 1966 and 1968 NIT, was impressed with how this year’s team bounced back after Plomb and Kevin Ferguson returned from injuries and made a late run to secure the No. 4 seed and home court in the Patriot League playoffs.
“You guys had a great year,’’ Schutsky said. “We’re really proud of you for all your accomplishments … The thing that stands out for me is you had a lot of adversity this year, you had a lot of injuries and you never quit. … That is really a great thing for you. Don’t quit now. You have everything in front of you. Don’t quit now.’’
Kachmarik, during his three-minute phone call, said the selection committee was impressed by Army’s 65 wins posted over the last four years, its 11-5 road record this season and the unique distinction of having four 1,000-point career scorers from the senior class.
“Every season, there are a handful of stories that are captivating,’’ Spiker said. “I think Army going back to the postseason for the first time since 1978 is certainly one of those.’’
The CIT, created in 2009, is made up of mid-major schools only, so it should be an even playing field. Through the first seven years, CIT teams have averaged 20 wins during the season.
“No matter what team we play, we have a chance to win the game,’’ said senior point guard Dylan Cox. “I believe in the guys, I believe in my teammates and I believe in the talent. I believe in the coaching staff. I think any game we play at the mid-major level, for this instance, I think we have a chance to make a deep run and win the thing.’’
Army played in the NIT in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1978 – the Black Knights finished third in 1964, 1965 and 1970. Army was invited to the 1968 NCAA tournament but coach Bob Knight turned down the offer because most coached figured it would be impossible to beat powerhouses UCLA or Houston in the NCAAs, and Knight believed Army could win the NIT. Years later, Army still has the dubious distinction of being one of five programs that were around when NCAA Division I was created in 1949 to have never played in the NCAA tourney.
Twitter: @KenMcMillanTHR

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