Monday, May 17, 2010

News and Notes: Monday Edition

Above, a tribute video to former Cornell basketball coach, Steve Donahue, as produced by SlopeTV and shown during Donahue's send-off party in Ithaca during the weekend. Below, some news and notes...
  • Dennis Clifford, a 6'11" Boston College recruiting commitment said it was Cornell’s coach , Steve Donahue and the Big Red's March run through the NCAA Tournament that made up Clifford’s mind of where to attend college. He told the Patriot Ledger, “I was really leaning towards the Ivies, [b] ut after the season when Coach Donahue got the job and saw my open-gym (workout), I knew that’s where I wanted to go."
  • There was quite a bit of buzz before Cornell's and Kentucky's 2010 NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen game in regard to the contrasting academic values in the two basketball programs. A new t-shirt is taking a jab at Kentucky's low team GPA.
Spiker's goal for his Army team: Winning season

ZACH SPIKER HAS BEEN around the game of basketball his entire life.

A self-described basketball junkie, Spiker, a Morgantown native, had studied and dissected and been involved in every facet of the game, from fan to player to graduate assistant to administrative assistant to assistant coach up until this past fall.

All those things helped, but nothing could have totally prepared Spiker for what was to come next.

After spending five seasons at Cornell on Steve Donahue's staff, Spiker jumped all-in at the opportunity to become the Army men's basketball head coach this past fall, even if the offer was made a mere 13 days before the start of practice. (And even though Spiker knew Cornell, which advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16, was going to have a special season).

Still, the 33-year-old was pumped. He was confident, and in many ways Spiker found a comfortable spot in what could have been a chaotic transition period.

"Everyone knew I was rushed and that it was awkward with the timing," Spiker said. "So everything else got put on the backburner. They just said, 'Just let him coach and deal with his team,' so all I had to do was coach."

And then the season started and this lifelong basketball nut experienced the game from a whole new vantage point. Some say there's not much difference between being an assistant and a head coach. Zach Spiker is not one of those people.

"It's very different. Anyone who tells you it isn't ... I think it was very different," Spiker said.

Perhaps it's trying to carry the enormity of the team, program and situation on your shoulders, or maybe it's knowing the buck has to stop with you, but it is different. Spiker explains it by saying the head coach must manage every part of the game while also trying to accept (most times unsuccessfully) that many aspects are out of the coach's control.

"In some ways, the head coach feels more hopeless," Spiker said with a laugh. "Everything is magnified, including the hopelessness."

That said, don't let Spiker fool you. In his first season, the Black Knights jumped out to a 9-3 start and finished the season with a 14-15 record. At a military school that's not experienced a winning season since 1985, that's called progress.

For Spiker, it wasn't good enough. He takes it as a personal challenge to provide the best basketball experience possible for his team. See, when Spiker's players graduate, there's no going to the NBA, the NBA Development League or even overseas to chase the dream of playing ball for a living.

"They're deployed," Spiker said. "This is their only basketball experience. That's very humbling."

Spiker, his wife, Jennifer, and 15-month-old son, Charlie, have embraced the ever-evolving military lifestyle. Spiker loves the structure, and he realizes, postgraduation, most of his players will experience stressful situations defending our country most can't imagine. That's part of what drives him to turn Army into a successful program.

He talks about his vision to get Army to its first-ever NCAA tournament. He knows it won't come easy or without a fight, but a dream has to be set first.

"I only get one chance with these guys, so our style of play is whatever it takes to win," he said. "I want them to have the best experience possible, and we were close this year to doing something that hasn't been done in 25 years. That's before any of them were alive -- for West Point to have a winning season. That'd be pretty neat to do."

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