After Duke rained devastation on Kentucky this past Tuesday, the natural temptation is to say, well then, what chance does Army have?
And no one is going to say it’s great. Duke has far more talent, better athletic resources and one of the very best coaches ever to walk the sideline, if not the best (thought game: Coach K vs. John Wooden. Would Wooden’s team win? Are you sure?)
But Army has a lot going for it as well.
Cadets, generally speaking, are incredibly mature. They’re also trained to be hard-nosed. And we would argue that one aspect of their training is a whole different level of communication.
These guys are learning to rely on each other to stay alive in combat and Duke starts four freshmen.
It’s an advantage in basketball but if your life is in danger, are you turning to Zion Williamson and Javin DeLaurier? Or are you turning to professional warriors in training? In West Point’s world, and no offense to anyone, but most of Duke’s players, and most people with any sense, would be letting the West Pointers take the lead. In the most elemental sense, Duke’s kids are training to learn a beautiful game but West Point’s are training to become killers (more fairly, they’re learning how to kill so that they may never have to).
We don’t mean to disparage Duke’s freshmen, who were sensational against UK. We’re thrilled to watch them. But their goals and the goals for the Black Knights couldn’t be more different.
Every team that pulls an upset has to have some cooperation from the supposedly superior team to do it.
Duke historically doesn’t go there very much. Coach K always preaches respect for one’s opponent and that that means giving your best effort.
We can remember a few deviations though. We think it was NC A&T one year - Lee Melchionni bailed his team out. A few years ago a Vermont team came to Cameron and only a slightly late and slightly short shot kept the Catamounts from an upset.
So yes, it can happen.
And we’d say there’s a reasonable chance that Army has a tougher and more cohesive group, partly because of the way the Academy operates and partly because they’re going to be older, and in many ways, more experienced.
So who is Army?
Well, first, there is a whole battalion: Army lists 25 team members.
As you might expect, Army is a bit different than your typical college. First, there is no tuition or scholarships so the team limit of 13 doesn't apply (the cadets don’t pay for their education directly but are required to serve for a given period of time to pay it back). And second, although this may have changed, for a very long time Army required students to join an athletic team.
Next, look at the breakdown of players on the team and where they come from. This is pretty interesting: about half of that huge roster comes from what we’d call basketball states: four from Indiana, two from Kentucky, three from North Carolina and two from Ohio.
Two more come from Richmond, which is certainly a basketball town.
Break it down a bit further and you’ll see one kid comes from Bloomington, one from South Bend, one from Alexandria, Kentucky which is near Cincinnati, one is from Cincinnati proper, one is from Raleigh, one is from Charlotte, one went to St. Peter’s prep in New Jersey, one is from New Albany, home of Romeo Langford, and one more is from Columbia, South Carolina, where high school basketball is ferociously competitive.
In other words, this is a roster full of guys who come from rich basketball traditions, who understand it and who want to be part of it.
They’re not coming into Cameron with their eyes just opened.
Like all military academies, Army struggles with height in basketball. The Black Knights has two guys who are 6-9 and three that are 6-8.
They also have nine guys who are 6-2 or under.
Despite the massive roster, against Marist, Army went with essentially a normal rotation with nine guys getting double digit minutes. The main players appear to be:
- Josh Caldwell (F, 6-2)
- Jordan Fox (Sr, 6-1)
- Thomas Funk (Jr 6-1)
- Matt Wilson (Jr, 6-9)
- Jacob Kessler (Sr, 193)
- Alex King (So, 6-8, 200)
- Aaron Duhart (F, 6-0)
- Tucker Blackwell (So, 6-1)
- Ben Kinker (F, 6-8)
Marist isn’t a particularly useful measurement but in that game, Wilson scored 24, Funk 15, including a game winning three, Fox 14 and no one else scored over six.
Wilson and Caldwell both had six rebounds while Funk had six assists and Caldwell four. Kessler had three steals.
Impressively, Army had just six turnovers.
So this an interesting game for Duke. As most readers will know, Mike Krzyzewski graduated from West Point and has long talked of lessons learned there (good: teamwork, accountability, problem solving) and bad (rigid rules).
He didn’t particularly like the arbitrary rules so as a coach he’s replaced rules with principles and expectations.
Make no mistake though: at its core, Duke is a program run on military concepts Coach K learned at West Point.
That’s why we’re reasonably sure that Duke will not have spent all week reading the glowing clippings about the brilliant performance against Kentucky but rather focus on weaknesses revealed in that game, notably excessive fouls and a drop in concentration when Duke was up by a large margin.
Army has a youngish coach in Jimmy Allen but that’s no strike against him: both Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski were in their 20s when they were hired by West Point. That’s a lot of genius to come out of a military program that struggles to win.
Allen has one great accomplishment under his belt already: he led Army to a tremendous 25 point comeback vs. Navy in 2017.
In the last 13:00 minutes of the game.
His dad was on the faculty, teaching chemistry, so Allen grew up in town and has surely internalized all the Army values which in shorthand are called Duty, Honor and Country.
One other small note: his boss is A.D. Boo Corrigan, a former Duke assistant A.D. and son of former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan. So a pair of lifers there.
Basically, this is a game that Duke should win as long as it’s not complacent or foolish. If, say, Zion Williamson suddenly starts looking for Sportscenter highlights rather than diving for loose balls, Duke could be in trouble. But as long as the team tries to play to its current potential and strives to improve, the Blue Devils should do fine.