NYC Metro Preview: #9 Army
10. Army (2006-07 Record: 15-16, 4-10 Patriot)
Head coach: Jim Crews
Returning Starters: 3- G Marcus Nelson (sophomore): 5-10, 190; F Chris Walker (sophomore): 6-8, 210; F Kenny Brewer (junior): 6-5, 210.
After a seven-game freefall in the middle of conference play, many teams would use that as a convenient reason to mail it in for the remainder of the year. But the Army basketball team last season wasn’t your conventional group, and they were able to win two of their last four to close out the season. While finishing below .500 for the year had to be a disappointment considering where they were before the swoon, they did manage to advance to the Patriot League semis, where their season was ended by perennial contender Bucknell. The quarterfinal victory over Lehigh on the road marked Army’s first conference tournament win since 1996, something on which to build heading into this season.
The scoring responsibilities will begin with senior guard Jarell Brown, picked by many in the preseason to be the Patriot League’s Player of the Year when it’s all said and done. Even though he led the Black Knights in scoring last season (16.9 ppg, 40.7% 3PT), Brown proved to be the ultimate “microwave” as he started only five of Army’s thirty-one games. Brown will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Marcus Nelson, a member of the Patriot League All-Rookie Team in 06-07. Nelson led Army with seventy-eight assists last season. The question in the backcourt will be who steps into the hole left by the graduation of Matt Bell (14.6 ppg). While there are a few players who can combine to match his scoring output, it’s the leadership area that will be of some concern. Fifteen players averaged at least five minutes per game last season, and expect to see more of the same.
As for who else could contribute in the backcourt, look for returnees such as senior Grant Carter (22 games played in 06-07; 42.9% 3PT), and sophomores Josh Miller (made the game-winning layup in the Patriot League quarters), Cleveland Richard (fifteen starts in 06-07) and Tyrell Thompson (2.7 ppg in fifteen games) to jockey for playing time. The bodies are certainly there, and thanks to the style employed by Coach Crews, a lot of guys will have opportunities to make things happen this year. But the backcourt of Brown and Nelson can match up with just about any in the Patriot League.
Up front, two starters return to West Point. Junior Kenny Brewer didn’t score much last season, averaging just over two points per game, but he does have some size and is an effective defender. Chris Walker had twenty starts as a plebe last season, and was second on the team in rebounding with 3.9 boards per game. Also returning up front are senior Corban Bates (3.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and the team’s leading rebounder, junior Doug Williams (4.2 rpg). Sophomores Eric Zastoupil and Will Schuh also stand to be in the running for playing time this season.
And while the Black Knights will have some talented newcomers at their disposal, a school year as a plebe in the service academies is unlike any other, so it may be a bit unwise to expect big things from them just yet. Four of the seven newcomers attended USMA Prep School last year; including two Houston natives (guard Mitch McDonald and guard/forward Rickey Royal). Four Texans total join the program, most notably El Paso native Nathan Hedgecock, who was named co-Most Valuable Player in the city by the El Paso Times last season. While it may be tough to expect big things from the newcomers right away, given the success of players such as Nelson and Walker, don’t be surprised of a couple of the plebes step into solid roles.
In terms of the schedule, Army’s non-conference slate will have some challenges but for the most part looks to be manageable, meaning that they may head into Patriot League play over .500. The season opens with two straight on the road: Minnesota (November 10th) in the debut of new head coach Tubby Smith, and Sacred Heart (November 12th), the pick by some to win the Northeast Conference. Five straight home games will finish up the Black Knights’ non-conference slate in 2007, ending with Brown (January 2nd) and Portland (January 5th). A trip to Presbyterian will lead them into Patriot League play for the remainder of the season. There are also three TV games for Army: both meetings with rival Navy (January 27th- ESPNU; February 23rd- CBS), and a trip to Bucknell (February 3rd- ESPNU).
Given the non-conference schedule, Army should be able to head into conference play above .500. But, the conference as a whole has improved, which could make it tough for them to make a major jump up the standings. While having Brown back will do wonders on the offensive end, others will have to step up to fill the hole left by Matt Bell’s graduation. Army, who averaged sixteen turnovers per game last season, will need to take better care of the basketball in addition to making more shots (39.7% FG in conference play). I see Army finishing anywhere from fourth to sixth in the Patriot this season.