March “Madness”

…and not the good kind. In fact, it’s taken me 2 full days to calm down enough to write this post.

The NCAA began its Division I designation during the 1947-48 basketball season. Only 5 teams that were part of that original designation have never made it to the tournament: William & Mary, St. Francis (NY), Northwestern, The Citadel, and (typically) Army.

This was supposed to be Army’s year, and maybe their best shot ever at a ticket to the dance. They came within a point of beating American in last year’s Patriot League tournament (American then went on to nearly upset Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a 14 seed). They had 7 seniors on the roster, by far the most in recent memory and a feat that’s very difficult to accomplish at West Point. The Patriot League was down a bit, as American was in the midst of rebuilding after losing a dominating senior class. The out-of-conference schedule was favorable. Everything looked set up for Army to achieve its first winning season since 1984-85.

Then, on September 24 (3 weeks before the start of official practices), Athletic Director Kevin Anderson fired Coach Jim Crews. His only justification was that a “series of events” had led him to believe that he needed to make a change. I’m not sure what those “events” were, but I am sure of this: Crews was the best thing to happen to Army basketball since Coach K.

In any case, the season started out great with a 10-2 start, primarily because of the soft schedule and the fact that Army’s kids had been playing together for 4 years. But when conference play started, everything seemed to fall apart. The team that was picked to finish 4th in the conference, and potentially win 20 games, and the team that received a few Top 25 votes in the first couple months of the season, finished a dismal 4-10 in the league, good enough for a last place 8 seed in the Patriot League tournament and a trip to Lehigh for the first-round game.

That game was a microcosm of the season. Army played perhaps the perfect first half, taking a 20-18 lead into the locker room, and holding Patriot League Freshman and Player of the Year C.J. McCollum (an unbelievable talent who has a shot to play at the next level–he led the nation in scoring for a freshman…and yes, that includes John Wall) to 2 points.

The second half was a different story. Army was outscored 46-25, McCollum finished with 19 points and 7 rebounds, and Army simply couldn’t keep pace offensively. Foul trouble, turnovers, and Lehigh’s 63% second-half shooting ended Army’s season.

It was heartbreaking to watch. It was heartbreaking to see the faces of the seniors as the final horn sounded. It was heartbreaking to want it so bad for a team that played so hard only to come up so short. It was heartbreaking to watch the tears come down in the locker room.

It was also heartbreaking to think what might have been had Crews not been fired. This team, and especially those 7 seniors, deserved better. They deserved their shot.

Unfortunately for them, Kevin Anderson destroyed that shot on September 24.

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~ by sportsdaggers on March 6, 2010.

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