NEW YORK — It’s not easy to sell Army basketball.
The Black Knights have never been to the NCAA Tournament, haven’t played in the NIT since 1978, and have finished above .500 exactly three times since Mike Krzyzewski left to pursue a slightly bigger job. Their head coach is in his second year and has no prior D-I head coaching experience. The Black Knights play in a perennial one-bid conference, and there is little reason to think they will challenge Bucknell for a shot at the Patriot League title this year.
I say all of that so I could also say this: The Army Black Knights are worth your time.
Now at 7-4 with a win over Air Force at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Black Knights may not be unstoppable, but they are a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Jordan Fox and Tommy Funk are a pair of barely-six-foot guards who run the show. Fox is 34-66 (52%) from three this season and Funk is shooting 41 percent himself. As a team, the Black Knights rank fifth in the country in three-point percentage, and the way they run their offense, it’s easy to see why.
“We want to attack the paint as much as we can,” head coach Jimmy Allen said after the win over Air Force. “We want those threes to come inside-out. If you’re shooting the right threes, then we want to take as many as we can.”
When the Black Knights attack off the drive, they’re content getting it to forward Matt Wilson, a double-digit scorer who is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. When that happens, Fox and Funk are also waiting on the wings. When they get the ball, it’s either a catch-and-shoot, or a couple dribbles, a quick screen, and a clean look.
In the first half alone against Air Force, Army knocked down 11 of its 21 attempts from three. They shot 52 percent from beyond the arc overall and outscored Air Force 18-6 in the paint.
“We want to move the basketball,” Allen said. “Get the ball moving and hopefully get the defense in a situation where we’re creating a closeout.”
Defensively, KenPom says the Black Knights play mostly man, but they mixed in some zone against the Falcons. Either way, they are active and well-coordinated, getting into passing lanes and forcing turnovers — the Falcons coughed it up 21 times on Sunday. It’s all part of the Army offense. After all, transition threes tend to be the best threes.
This season, Army has not played a game with fewer than 70 possessions. They have the 26th-shortest average possession length in the nation, and in that time, the Black Knights shoot with an effective field goal percentage of 55.5 — top 50 nationally.
Army still has not beaten a team ranked better than 198 in KenPom and it owns two sub-200 losses, so keep that in mind before jumping entirely on the bandwagon. But Army doesn’t have to be an NCAA Tournament team to show significant progress as a program. Fox is a junior, and Funk and Wilson are sophomores. Alex King (10 ppg) and Tucker Blackwell (47 percent from three) are both freshmen. Allen is laying the foundation of a program that will define itself by an up-tempo style and disciplined defense.
“We’re excited about what our youth has added to the program,” Allen said. “We’re looking to improve every day and I think we’ve had really good leadership.”
The Black Knights will get their share of Patriot League wins, but regardless of the final result, they’ve managed to inject some life into a conference that needs it.