Game #9-070: Army at Saint Francis (NY) TerriersNovember 20, 2012 7:00 pm
Physical Ed. Center
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - The much maligned and scrutinized Shabazz Muhammed scored 21 points as UCLA held off Georgia, 60-56, Tuesday night at the brand spanking new Barclays Center. Muhammed - projected as the top pick in next year's NBA draft - has had more words written about him
, more stories telling us how good at basketball he's going be (or the opposite) than you have time to read over your (hopefully) peaceful Thanksgiving holiday, even though he has currently played a total of two college basketball games.
He's 19 years old.
In the nightcap, top-ranked Indiana beat Georgetown in overtime. The media and sportz shows gushed over the Hoyas and their prospects of returning to glory, despite the loss. Cameras were everywhere, as were microphones, and everything else that comes with big-time entertainment.
Like seemingly everyone else Tuesday, I was on the subway to Brooklyn. Only I got off a couple of stops before the Barclays Center, stopped quickly at the One Way Deli for the self-acclaimed best $5 burger in Brooklyn and hung a right on Remsen Street, an unremarkable road in Brooklyn Heights. If you're not looking for it, you'll probably miss the two buildings on the left (across from the New York Gym). That would be St. Francis College.
Pretty much all of St. Francis College.
If you walk straight through the front door, you'll run smack into the Pope Physical Education Center, which may look like your local high school gym (only a tad bit cleaner), but it's home to the Terriers of SFC, a Division I basketball team. And, 1.2 miles from the Barclays Center (according to my phone's GPS), they had their first home game of the 2012-13 season against Army.
It's funny how loyalties are developed, both in sports and beyond. I root for the New York Yankees because my grandfather and father did, but (even though I don't watch too much baseball anymore) if I had to choose again today, with no geographical restrictions, I would surely back a smaller-market squad.
I'm a graduate of Syracuse, so I'm going to pull for my alma mater. When I started going to Mid-majority games in earnest last season without any preconceived notions of who was who, however, there were two that stood out, their unique and particular situations drawing me to support them, and they were St. Francis of Brooklyn and the United States Military Academy.
For completely different reasons, as well. I love St. Francis for its intimacy and its sheer size
, or lack thereof. The whole campus, at least academically, is those two unremarkable buildings. As I entered Tuesday, I took the escalators up to the seventh floor and saw a couple of classes going on in the science wing, stopped back at the fourth floor where there was another court and a gym. The ticket office doubles as the Campus Ministry headquarters, and the only way to my seats was through the school cafeteria, where a dancing group could care less that a Division I basketball game was about to take place about 25 feet away.
The Pope Center itself seats about 1,200 and was about three-quarters full for the home opener. As bodies came in, the gym got warm, a buzz went through the crowd, the music was a bit too loud.
It was a basketball game all right. One that Shabazz Muhammed might have recognized from some point in his life. But these days, maybe not.
The visitors on this night, Army, share one ignominious distinction with St. Francis. They are two of the five teams (Northwestern, William and Mary, and The Citadel the others) that have played Division I basketball since the tournament started in 1939 and have never participated.
Otherwise, though, West Point couldn't be more different than the "campus" they were playing on. Army is able to draw players from all over the country, but only if they meet the strict academic and physical guidelines expected of future military leaders of this country. Their campus is a beautiful, spacious rural retreat that has been around for centuries, but there's not much room for them to enjoy it.
The kicker is the mandatory military service upon graduation. In exchange for free tuition, graduates are commissioned as officers, which beats unemployment, but not a big draw for many of the stellar high school basketball players of today's era.
And that's why I love West Point
. As I tried to explain in my pre-season essay
, they get it, it being the purpose of athletics. Mandatory participation in athletics teaches them valuable life and leadership skills they will take into making the world a better place when they graduate. West Point believes very strongly in that and so do I. Add in the sacrifice these young men are making in an unstable world, and my eternal gratitude and admiration goes out to them.
Army has not had a winning season since 1984-85 (the only once since Mike Krzyzewski did it in 1978-79), but former Cornell assistant Zach Spiker seems to have things headed in the right direction. He's employed a system that may be unique to a place like West Point, as he has nine freshman on a squad that dressed 18 players for Tuesday's game, 13 of them appearing in the first half.
If you're going to gripe about playing time at a place like West Point, though, you're not really ready for the sacrifice and teamwork that's going to face you when you're in a life-or-death environment halfway around the world in a few years, are you?
Maxwell Lenox impressed me a lot last season, and was an All-Patriot League rookie selection after his freshman campaign a year ago. He got only seven minutes Tuesday, but made them count, scoring eight key points in the second half to help Army pull away.
It's not Loyola Marymount of yesteryear (or Grinnell of modern times), but Spiker subbed liberally (less than three minutes into the contest all five starters were on the bench and no one played more than 27 minutes), and kept pressure on St. Francis whenever he could. The Terriers led early and seemed to have a significant advantage through sophomore Jalen Cannon inside, but even with All-Patriot League selection Ella Ellis in foul trouble, the Black Knights had grabbed a 31-30 lead by the half.
Eventually, Army started to wear St. Francis down (even though coach Glenn Braica used 12 players as well). Everyone Spiker put in the game seemed to be able to shoot, and weren't afraid to fire away in transition, Ellis' #superhoop
giving Army a 38-30 lead early in the second half.
Slowly, St. Francis got a few stops and chipped away, but 6-foot-10 Kevin Ferguson's dunk capped an 8-0 run and Army had a 54-44 lead with 6:44 left.
I was sitting next to Ferguson's friends and family (a New Jersey native, he is one of only two players from the northeast on the roster), and I asked them how Kevin was holding up with the physical demands as a 6-foot-10 kid who obviously hadn't filled out completely yet. At a normal Division I school, you can eat and work out with the school's nutritionists and training staff, but there's not much time for anything like that at West Point, with the physical demands of academic and physical training. They said it was difficult, but he was holding up for now.
Spiker's team was never threatened the rest of the way, moving to 3-1 on the season with a 67-59 victory. Looking at the rest of the non-conference schedule, there might be some wins in there, and with some luck, Army's first winning season in 27 years is certainly a possibility. An NCAA Tournament berth may be asking a lot with Bucknell and Lehigh hanging around in the Patriot League, but you never know.
I seem to be focusing plenty on assistant coaches of late, and again someone near the Army bench attracted my attention. He was in full uniform (military, that is) and was a dead ringer for Stinger in Top Gun
. He went around pumping up the players before the game. During it, he periodically made trips behind the bench to offer an encouraging word and greet subs coming out (which there were many), although none of it seemed specific to basketball.
As the game ended, and Army celebrated a road victory, I asked who it was.
The answer was Command Sergeant Major Todd Burnett
. Burnett enlisted in the army in 1986, and served seven tours of duty overseas, most recently Iraq, earning all kinds of accolades. His last assignment was leading an American force trying to clear IEDs (improvised explosive device) from Iraq
and other areas where they were in the way of not only military, but civilians. After being a leader in that field, saving only God knows how many lives, Burnett was all set to retire in 2011, but when the position of Command Sergeant Major of the Core of Cadets at the USMA opened, he decide to postpone retirement for a little while.
As I pointed out, athletics is integral to life at West Point, and Burnett made sure he was present at as many West Point games as possible, driving home that message through visibility, as he was doing Tuesday night.
The bus was ready to leave Brooklyn and the plebes and cadets were headed back out of the fake world and into the real world of a brutal West Point curriculum. I asked a couple of them about Burnett, and they said this was Burnett's last game, it was finally time for him to retire from the army, which would take effect later this week.
Upon hearing the news (and his story), I searched for Burnett, if nothing else to thank him for his years of service to our country, and that - even though few of us show us - we are eternally grateful for his sacrifice to the cause.
I'm sure he would have probably shrugged and said, "Thanks", people in position's like Burnett's don't do their job for public acclimation.
But, if I couldn't do it in person, I just wanted to say publicly: Thank You Command Sergeant Major Burnett, and enjoy your retirement.
Some day Shabazz Muhammed may have a storied NBA career full of accolades and a couple of championships. But he'll never be Todd Burnett. ARMY 67, at SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 59
ARMY 3-1 (0-0) -- J. Herbeck 1-6 0-0 3; K. Wilson 6-12 0-0 13; D. Cox 2-2 1-2 5; E. Ellis 3-7 6-8 15; L. Toomey 2-4 0-0 4; A. Stire 1-2 2-2 4; J. Springer 2-7 1-2 5; T. Plomb 2-6 0-0 4; K. Toth 1-2 1-2 4; K. Ferguson 1-2 0-0 2; M. Gramling 0-2 0-2 0; M. Lenox 3-4 2-2 8; M. Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-56 13-20 67.
SAINT FRANCIS (NY) 1-2 (0-0) -- J. Cannon 9-14 5-8 23; K. Douglas 6-13 0-2 15; B. Mockford 0-7 0-0 0; D. Calloway 0-4 1-4 1; A. Johnson 2-5 0-0 4; T. Nichols 1-4 4-4 7; B. Jones 2-7 3-4 7; P. Santavenere 0-2 0-0 0; M. Milk 0-0 2-2 2; A. Isailovic 0-2 0-0 0; A. White 0-0 0-0 0; L. Ulmer 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-59 15-24 59.
Three-point goals: ARMY 6-20 (E. Ellis 3-6; J. Herbeck 1-5; M. Gramling 0-2; T. Plomb 0-1; L. Toomey 0-1; K. Toth 1-2; K. Wilson 1-3), SFNY 4-20 (B. Mockford 0-5; T. Nichols 1-2; B. Jones 0-2; P. Santavenere 0-1; L. Ulmer 0-1; K. Douglas 3-7; A. Isailovic 0-2); Rebounds: ARMY 30 (J. Springer 5), SFNY 35 (J. Cannon 10); Assists: ARMY 14 (D. Cox 6), SFNY 13 (B. Jones 3); Total Fouls -- ARMY 19, SFNY 18; Fouled Out: ARMY-None; SFNY-None.