Top Tournament Performances by Military Schools
Ever wondered how military schools have fared in the NCAA Tournament?
March 20, 2013 by Jake Butler
Here we are, right in the middle of March Madness – the special time of year where college basketball teams put it all on the line, hoisting up buzzer beaters to survive and advance as they vie for tournament championships. Military schools are no different, some with rich histories and some still looking for their first berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Out of the five federal service academies in the United States, three of them are in Division I, eligible to make the NCAA Tournament via either a conference tournament championship or an at-large bid. They are the U.S. Military Academy (the Army Black Knights), the U.S. Naval Academy (the Navy Midshipmen) and the U.S. Air Force Academy (the Air Force Falcons). There are two other military schools that deserve recognition here as well though – the Citadel Bulldogs and the Virginia Military Institute Keydets. Though there are no Final Fours or NCAA Championships among the lot, there’s still something special about simply making the Big Dance or going on to a career in the military after basketball. Read on for a rundown of the best March Madness performances from teams, players and coaches associated with these military institutions.
We’ll start with the teams that have had limited postseason success – Army and The Citadel. Both programs are on a shrinking list of teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament, although both schools have been playing basketball for over 100 years.
Army started its program in 1903 and currently plays in the Patriot League. Though they’ve never made the NCAA Tournament, they have made it to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) eight times with a respectable 13-10 record. They made several deep runs in the 1960s, finishing in third place three times. That success was spearheaded by Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight in his first head coaching gig, with help from a young point guard named Mike Krzyzewski.
The Citadel Bulldogs made their first postseason appearance ever after a 20-win season in 2009, earning a bid to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT). Coach Chuck Driesell has a lot of work to do if he’s going to challenge Davidson for future championships in the Southern Conference.
Moving on to a team that’s accomplished more in less time, the Falcons of Air Force didn’t start playing basketball until 1958, which is considerably later than the rest of these schools. They have four appearances in the NCAA tournament – first in 1960 and most recently in 2006 – but they’ve yet to notch their first victory. 0-4 in the school’s history means they’ll be hungry for a win the next time they get in. Other notable postseason performances include a deep run in the 2007 NIT, making it all the way to the semifinals before falling to Clemson, as well as a 1-1 appearance in the CIT just a couple years ago in 2011. Coach Dave Pilipovich is looking to build on the recent success and keep the Falcons competitive in the Mountain West Conference.
The Virginia Military Institute Keydets played in the Southern Conference with The Citadel for years, fueling a military rivalry until they departed for the Big South in 2003. The Keydets do have a few NCAA Tournament appearances, with an overall record of 3-3, including an Elite Eight in 1976 and a Sweet 16 in 1977 when the tournament fielded 32 teams. They have not made the postseason since, though they’ve been churning out career military personnel since 1842.
And last, but certainly not least, the Navy Midshipmen. The basketball program has been around since 1908, with its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament coming in 1947. In total, they’ve made the Big Dance 11 times for a record of 8-12 overall. Their most notable success came in 1986 when their seventh-seed team led by junior All-American David Robinson made it to the Elite Eight, upsetting second-seeded Syracuse along the way. They also made the NIT once in 1967, though they lost to Duquesne in the first round.
There are a handful of college basketball standouts who eventually decided to enlist in the military. Tim James is the most recent player – he led the University of Miami to a number 2 seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament and was later drafted 25th overall by the Miami Heat. After playing a couple years in the NBA, then a few more overseas, he left his basketball career behind and joined the Army, where he would later serve in Iraq. He’s currently the head basketball coach at Vance-Granville Community College in North Carolina.
Mike Silliman might not be a household name, but he was likely the best player prospect that the Army basketball program has ever produced. He’s the only Army graduate to ever make it to the NBA, capitalizing on the tutelage of famed head coach Bob Knight. He even won a gold medal in 1968 as a captain of the U.S. Olympic team.
Another player named Connie Norman joined the Army after his playing days were done, eventually being stationed in Germany. He starred at Arizona in the 1970s and played in the NBA for three seasons before being cut by the San Diego Clippers.
And that brings us to the pride of the U.S. Naval Academy – David Robinson. Where to begin with his list of accolades? He’s easily the best player a military school has ever produced and some might even put him on a short list of the best centers in NBA history. During his time at Navy, he led the Midshipmen to three straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, once making it to the Elite Eight before being knocked out by – guess who – Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils.
Robinson was a consensus All-American in his final two seasons and, as a senior in 1987, won both the Naismith College Player of the Year and the John R. Wooden Award as the most outstanding player in the country. Although his actual rank was Lieutenant, Junior Grade, he was nicknamed The Admiral and featured in several recruiting campaigns as the face of the Navy. He was drafted in 1987 as the first overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs even though they had to wait two years while he fulfilled is active duty obligations. During that time, he served as a civil engineering officer at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Camden County, Georgia. The rest is history – the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, half of “The Twin Towers” with future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, two NBA Championships, one NBA MVP – and it all started at the U.S. Naval Academy.
There you have it – a brief history of military participation in March Madness. Air Force carries the torch this season as the only one of the five to make a postseason tournament with their berth in the CIT. We hope those of you serving overseas get a chance to watch some of the madness and cheer on your favorite team. Check out the infographic below or leave a comment letting everyone know who you're rooting for.
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