NEW BRITAIN, Conn.- As the public address announcer asked for a moment of reflection to "remember those serving to protect our freedoms both home and abroad", the guys in the black shirts in front of him surely didn't need the reminder.
No, when you have "West Point" emblazoned on the front of your jerseys, you're well indoctrinated in protecting freedoms. Or you're at least well on your way.
Full disclosure: I like to root for the service academies. It's been an ongoing battle in my life with the role sports should play in our society, and needless to say, I think college sports have gotten just a little bit too big for their britches over the years. Shocking, I know.
In a week that was all about Mike Krzyzewski (and rightfully so), I decided to check out Army and its young coach - Zach Spiker - a former Cornell assistant who was all the rage in 2009-2010. After he took over just a couple of weeks before the season, the Cadets stormed out to a 9-3 record, and looked like they might - just might - make their first NCAA Tournament appearance ever.
Wait, that can't be right. Ever? Sure enough, Army is one of five teams (Northwestern obviously being another), who have been with Division I since the beginning and not gone to the Big Dance.
Spiker's success didn't last, Army lost nine of its last 12 to finish 14-15 two years ago, and went 10-19 last season, its 25th straight losing campaign (not a misprint). The last time Army was actually good was the 1977-78 season when Krzyzewski (Class of '69) led them to a 19-9 mark and a two-point loss to Rutgers in the first round of the NIT. That was a long time ago, and even Krzyzewski was 23-27 in his final two seasons before he went on to coach somewhere else. I can't remember where, I'm sure you could look it up.
Saturday afternoon, in a glorified high school facility complete with a stage and stifling temperatures known as Detrick Gym, mighty Central Connecticut spanked the United States Military Academy, 67-51. Spiker's group seemed organized, they ran a couple of nice plays for layups, and his 1-3-1 temporarily gave the Blue Devils fits in the first half as they jumped out to a 20-13 lead.
But it was only a matter of time.
Reigning NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton was just getting warmed up, and Spiker had no one to guard senior Robby Ptacek, who scored a career-high 31 points. The game quickly got away from the Cadets early in the second half, who couldn't hold on to the ball (22 turnovers) and had only one player in double figures (junior Ella Ellis had 21 points and played extremely well, a bright spot) as they were pretty obviously outclassed.
Take nothing away from long-time Central coach Howie Dickenman (a Jim Calhoun disciple) and his team. Horton is legit, and the Blue Devils will be a threat in the NEC. But should our best and brightest, the future leaders of our country's military and quite possibly the nation itself, be getting blown out by Central Connecticut State?
Your head knows the answer to that question. The quest to a basketball scholarship (and beyond, if the NBA ever returns) includes being a big man on campus, parties, girls, travel, and at least a modicum of celebrity. It does not include "Duty, Honor,Country" or becoming a second lieutenant upon graduation with a pretty good chance (these days) of seeing active duty somewhere halfway across the globe. It certainly doesn't include Basic Training, a year of being a plebe, or any of that stuff.
Of course, that doesn't even take into account the high standards for admission, either.
Which is why I admire these guys. They understand that basketball is not life, most will go on to serve our country with honor and protect us in ways in which we will never see and never be able to give thanks. They've given up a chance at a normal college experience and basically a normal life for the next decade (at least) for something bigger than themselves.
Unfortunately, they're not very good at basketball, at least not Saturday. And not in losses to Air Force and The Citadel (a win over Division III Marywood was in there,too). Freshman guards Maxwell Lennox and Mo Williams struggled (4-for-12 shooting, nine turnovers), but they're gaining experience. Army doesn't play a single team above the Red Line (as opposed to Central, who has Michigan State coming up next month among others), so there's hope for a young coach like Spiker.
Well, maybe there's not. But there should be. Realistic view of our culture and its values be damned.
at CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE 67, ARMY 51 11/19/2011
ARMY 1-3 (0-0) -- E. Ellis 7-15 5-7 21; M. Williams 3-7 0-0 7; M. Lenox 1-5 0-1 2; J. Herbeck 1-6 0-0 3; A. Stire 3-4 0-0 6; J. Springer 1-1 4-5 6; J. Simmons 2-5 0-0 5; J. Harris 0-1 1-2 1; J. Pancoe 0-2 0-0 0; W. Thornton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-46 10-15 51. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE 1-2 (0-0) -- R. Ptacek 12-20 3-3 31; K. Vinales 1-6 0-1 3; M. McMillan 2-3 0-2 4; J. Efese 3-6 0-0 6; K. Horton 7-13 1-4 19; T. Allen 1-3 0-0 2; A. Burbage 1-1 0-0 2; S. Mickell 0-1 0-0 0; D. Simmons 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-53 4-10 67.
Three-point goals: ARMY 5-16 (J. Simmons 1-3; J. Pancoe 0-2; E. Ellis 2-6; J. Herbeck 1-3; M. Williams 1-2), CCSU 9-24 (K. Horton 4-10; R. Ptacek 4-9; K. Vinales 1-4; S. Mickell 0-1); Rebounds: ARMY 23 (M. Lenox 8), CCSU 30 (J. Efese 10); Assists: ARMY 10 (M. Lenox 4), CCSU 17 (M. McMillan 7); Total Fouls -- ARMY 14, CCSU 19; Fouled Out: ARMY-None; CCSU-None.