There are 351 teams playing Division I basketball this season, 160 of whom have been in the NCAA’s top tier since it was formed before the 1948-49 season. Of those original members, five — Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis of Brooklyn and William and Mary — have never played in its signature event, the NCAA tournament.
For the next five weeks, The Washington Post will examine each of them.
When Army basketball Coach Zach Spiker sits at his office desk, it is impossible for someone sitting across from him not to notice the dozen ring-sizers that dangle from the shelf behind him.
“Brought them from Cornell,” he likes to say. “We used them there. All our guys know that the goal is to use them here.”
Spiker is in his seventh season as Army’s coach, and the team has made steady progress since his arrival, in October 2009. Entering Monday, Army’s overall record the past four seasons was 58-55 — modest by most standards but progress for a program that until 2013 had gone 27 consecutive seasons without a winning record.
That said, the Black Knights haven’t yet done what Spiker set out to do when he arrived from Cornell with those ring-sizers in tow.
“It was just about the first thing he said to me on his recruiting visit,” Army senior center Kevin Ferguson said recently. “You’re coming to Army to make history. I liked that idea then. I like it now. I want to have that moment when I’m part of something no Army basketball player has ever been part of before.”
That moment can only come if and when Army wins the Patriot League men’s basketball tournament. The school has been part of the conference since it was formed in 1990 and has played in the tournament 25 times; it has never played in the championship game. On only seven occasions has it reached the semifinals.
“They’re in the right conference, and they’ve got the right coach to win in that conference, I’m convinced of that,” said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Army class of 1969, Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2001. “It isn’t as if Army’s never been good in basketball — we’ve been very good. It’s just that we were good in a different time when making the NCAAs wasn’t the be-all and end-all. When I played, there was no such thing as March Madness.”
Krzyzewski played for another Hall of Fame coach, Bob Knight. During a 10-season period, from 1961 through 1970, Army was invited to the National Invitation Tournament seven times, four times under Knight. In 1968, when Krzyzewski was a junior, the Cadets — as they were called in those days — were invited to the NCAA tournament.
But Knight turned down the invitation. Army, he decided, would return to the NIT instead.
“The decision made a lot of sense,” Krzyzewski said. “We were 20-4. Coach Knight believed we were good enough to win the NIT, but he knew we weren’t going to beat UCLA [led by Lew Alcindor] if we played them in the NCAA. Plus, the NIT was played in New York, in Madison Square Garden. For us, playing in the NIT meant every bit as much as playing in the NCAA.
“I’ve never regretted that Coach Knight made that decision. What I regret is that all of us except for [forward] Bill Schutsky played poorly against Notre Dame.”
The Cadets lost that first-round game, 62-58, on national TV — a big deal back then. A year later, they upset South Carolina in the quarterfinals before losing in the semifinals to Boston College. The following season, Army again lost in the NIT semifinals, this time 71-70 to St. John’s on what everyone connected to Army insists was a phantom foul called against Jim Oxley on the game’s final play.
“That one was tough,” said Oxley, a 30-year emergency room physician who is now the chief medical officer at Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown, N.Y., not far from West Point. “We all thought the ball was out of bounds off St. John’s, and they gave them the ball back. Then, on the last play, I stayed back from Richie [Lyons] to make sure not to foul.
“In those days, the NIT meant every bit as much to all of us as the NCAAs — maybe more. I didn’t even know until years later that Coach Knight had turned down the NCAA in 1968. I was just a sophomore. No one asked me what I thought or even told me about it. But I didn’t think it was the wrong decision then and I don’t think it was the wrong decision now. If basketball back then was the way it is today, obviously we’d have gone to the NCAA. But it wasn’t.”
Army’s glory days were the twilight of the NIT’s prominence. In 1971, the NCAA passed a rule giving invited teams no choice but to play in its tournament if invited. Two years later, NBC moved the NCAA title game from Saturday afternoon to Monday night, and in 1975 the field was expanded to 32 teams. The NIT, meanwhile, became regionalized — and marginalized — in 1977 when it moved out of Madison Square Garden, playing games at home sites until later rounds in a cost-cutting move.
By 1985, when the NCAAs expanded to 64 teams, the NIT was known among fans of major conference teams as the “Not Invited Tournament.” It had become the place where mediocre teams went after their seasons had died without a Selection Sunday invitation.
Over the same time, Army basketball fell from the heights of the ’60s. Knight left in 1971 to become an icon at Indiana. Krzyzewski returned to coach in 1975, taking over in the wake of a 3-22 season. Two years later, the Cadets went 20-8 and the following season went 19-9 and were invited to the NIT. They lost, 72-70, at Rutgers in the first round, and haven’t played a postseason game since.
Spiker arrived in 2009, a young coach who had been part of a winning program — with back-to-back Ivy League titles at Cornell — knowing it had been 31 years since the school had been to the postseason and 24 since it had been above .500.
“The way I looked at it when I got the chance to interview for the job was I had a chance to coach at a place where Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski had coached,” he said. “If Army was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.”
“I also knew it had been a while since they’d been good.”
Spiker made two decisions soon after taking the job: that his team needed to play a style that players would enjoy — up-tempo and aggressive — and that he had to sell them on making history at a place soaked in it. One of the recruiting posters the academy uses depicts West Point graduates Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur with the tag line: “Much of the history we teach was made by those who we taught.”
Basketball players aren’t usually that interested in making that sort of history. But basketball history is another story.
“I think about it all the time,” said Tanner Plomb, a 6-7 forward from Mukwonago, Wis., who leads the Patriot League in scoring at 21.8 points per game. “Ever since I was a kid, playing in the NCAA tournament has been a dream. I still remember Coach Spiker saying to me, ‘You can go someplace and help take them back or you can come to Army and do it for the first time.’ I wanted to be part of something that had never been done.”
Plomb is one of seven seniors on this year’s team, five of whom start when everyone is healthy. In early January, both he and Ferguson were injured: Plomb hurt a knee, Ferguson an ankle. The injuries were part of an unfortunate pattern for Army the past two seasons.
A year ago, Tanner Omlid, who had been on the Patriot League all-rookie team the previous winter, tore his anterior cruciate ligament five games into the season. Kyle Wilson, the team’s leading scorer and a first team all-Patriot player in 2013-14, was bothered all season by an injury to his shooting wrist; and Max Lenox, a guard expected to play serious minutes off the bench, tore his Achilles’ tendon in December, ending his season. A team that opened 14-6 with a win at Southern California literally limped to a 1-9 finish, including a first-round loss to Navy in the Patriot League tournament.
“It was a very big letdown,” Spiker said. “We felt we had the potential to be the best team in the league, and then we couldn’t be at our best because of the injuries. This isn’t a place, though, where you make excuses. No one cares if you have injuries. It’s part of the game.”
Krzyzewski, speaking as a disappointed alumnus, agrees — but not completely. “Injuries are part of the game,” he echoed. “But at times they’re a very cruel part of the game.”
Oxley, who still attends games frequently and knows the players and coaches, enjoys the team’s up-and-down style but admits he becomes frustrated at times by its defense.
“I understand what Zach’s trying to do,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic, though, because everything we did was predicated on defense. That’s how we won. When these guys are making shots, they’re very good. But there are nights when you don’t make shots, and those are the nights you need to defend. They struggle with that.”
Oxley paused. “I’d really like to see them make the tournament if only so they could stop hearing from us old guys about the good old days and how good we were back then,” he said. “This would be something they could call their own that we never accomplished.”
This season hasn’t been that different from last for the Black Knights, as they’re now called. They came into conference play with a 10-3 record, including an impressive win over Monmouth in late December, and opened their Patriot League slate with a win at Lehigh, the preseason favorite. Since then though, the injury plague (Ferguson and Plomb) has struck again, and the Black Knights were just 3-6 in conference and 12-9 overall after Saturday’s loss at Bucknell.
“I guess the good news is that both Kevin and Tanner should be back in plenty of time to be 100 percent when we get to March,” said Spiker, who has hammered the notion of better defense into his team. “Everyone knows the season comes down to the tournament. You want to win as many games in the regular season as you can so you can play at home, but we’ve been a good road team the last few years.”
For the seniors, this is their last chance to make the history they have heard about and talked about since they were in high school.
“Last year’s ending was awful,” Plomb said. “We’ve come a long way but we still have to make it to a championship game so we’re in position to say, ‘Okay, this is it, this is that moment we’ve talked about.’ That’s the next step. I don’t think any of us doesn’t think it possible.”
Boo Corrigan, now in his fifth year as Army’s athletic director, has understandably focused a lot of his energy on trying to get Army’s football team turned around. But he’s very aware of the efforts and frustrations of Spiker and his players.
“It’s really pretty simple,” he said during a game earlier this month. “We need to get off that list. We need to not be one of the five. I’d like to read a story next year about the four, not the five, because we’re no longer part of it.”
Spiker has never been defensive about being on the list, but he admits he dreads the inevitable questions that come up this time of year. “The good news is we’ve put ourselves in position to be asked the question,” he said. “The bad news is, we’re still being asked it.”
Recently, on a Sunday morning before a noon home game against American, Plomb and Ferguson watched their teammates go through their pregame rituals without them.
“Back in a week,” Ferguson, still on crutches, insisted, even though his coach thought it would be closer to a month.
Plomb said the same thing. Both were dying to get back in uniform — and not the gray kind that comes with shiny black boots.
“We know we’re on that list of five,” Plomb said, and both players instantly ticked off the names of the four other schools. “We get it.”
He added: “Some people see it as a curse. We don’t. We see it as a goal.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.