- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — This Navy basketball team does not exactly rekindle images of the David Robinson era or the more recent glory days of three NCAA tournament trips in the mid-1990s, but the Midshipmen appear to be competitive again after five seasons of futility.

The Mids are off to a 9-3 start after not having won more than 10 games in a season since 2000-01. The prolonged losing spanned the downtrodden end of a previously successful run with Don DeVoe as the coach and the first two seasons as Billy Lange tried to restore order to the once-proud program.

“We were the last ranked team in RPI the year before I arrived,” said Lange, who inherited a team that had three Division I wins the previous season. “The most important thing was changing the environment. We had to get kids thinking, ‘We can play Division I basketball here and win.’ ”

It is unlikely the Navy will get that 10th win today, when it plays Georgetown at Verizon Center. After all, the Hoyas’ goal is to compete for a national championship. The Mids simply want to be relevant in the Patriot League, where they have finished next to last — ahead of only Army — in the eight-team conference in each of the past four seasons.

Georgetown may be out of Navy’s league, but the way the Mids have been playing, an upset no longer seems impossible. Navy is off to its best start since 1998-99, and there is a renewed sense of optimism around Alumni Hall.

“We hung with Villanova and really didn’t feel we played as well as we could have,” said point guard Corey Johnson, whose team lost to the Wildcats 70-61 in Philadelphia. “We were down by two with just a few minutes to go. We feel when we are at the top of our game we can play with anybody.”

Johnson and fellow junior Greg Sprink are the captains and tone-setters for the Mids, who are stocked with perimeter players and have no true post players. Navy takes more than 24 3-pointers a game and makes an impressive 39.4 percent. The 6-foot-5 Sprink averages 16.9 points, while the 6-2 Johnson, who passed on Big Ten football scholarships to Purdue and Indiana, shoots 50.7 percent overall while leading the team with 5.3 rebounds a game.

The Mids also have an arsenal of other capable gunners in sophomores Kaleo Kina (9.9 points, 44.4 percent 3-pointers) and Adam Teague (7.7 points, 41.7 percent 3-pointers) and 6-10 freshman Trey Stanton, who spent much of his high school career as a guard before a late growth spurt. Stanton averages 9.4 points while hitting 42.3 percent of his 3-pointers.

“We want to push it and shoot the open shot,” said Stanton, who was 6-3 as a junior in high school. “We will push the ball instead of running down the shot clock. Sometimes we want to use the shot clock, but most of the time we are going to shoot when we are open.”

The deep-ball strategy was partially by design and also formulated from necessity by Lange, who came to Annapolis after spending three seasons as an assistant at Villanova. The philosophy is part Princeton-style, relying on precise cuts and passing and forcing defenses to expand by guarding 3-point shooters.

“What I would love to do is recruit good players into our system, but what we had to do was just take good players regardless of size or location,” said Lange, who spent two seasons coaching the Division III Merchant Marine Academy before leaving for Villanova. “And then let’s see after a few years what we would kind of become and build around that.”

The Mids now have extensive shooting drills built into practices. In a session earlier this week, they spent the majority of a 11/2-hour workout on outside shooting. They even wore silly-looking goggles that looked like bifocals with the bottom half covered, forcing players to keep their heads up and promoting better ballhandling. Navy averages 15.4 assists a game.

“The game is about fundamentals,” said Johnson, who feels the style of play is more European than traditional American one-on-one-type play. “Just about everybody on our team can shoot, drive, pass the ball. We definitely have some better talent than when I got here, but for the most part, we are more skilled.”

So far, results have been positive for the Mids. Navy’s only losses have come against the Villanova and St. John’s of the Big East and Ivy League power Penn.

The Mids started believing this season could be different after erasing a 13-point second-half deficit in the season opener against Loyola to pull out a 73-61 win. Freshman T.J. Topercer had 15 points after halftime as the Mids shot 6-for-12 from 3-point range in the second half after missing 11 of 13 before the break.

“We came back and played well and everybody just kind of noticed what we could accomplish,” said Sprink, whose team made all 20 of its free throws in the second half. “Half the battle is confidence. We definitely have that. Now all we have to do is get out there and execute and have energy.”

The Mids also won two straight close games — at Longwood in overtime and against Howard in double overtime — games they likely would have lost in recent seasons.

The modest success could be a sign Navy is ready to compete in the Patriot League, although Lange admits challenging for the title with only two juniors and no seniors playing significant roles is unlikely. The Mids, under DeVoe, were the conference’s dominant program from 1994 to 1998, with three titles and subsequent NCAA trips.

A lot has changed since then.

It is no coincidence that Navy’s slide came as the league implemented athletic scholarships, meaning competitors like Bucknell, Holy Cross and its newest member, American, could compete for better recruits. Navy and Army offer full scholarships to all students in exchange for a post-graduate military commitment.

Lange acknowledged while “it changed the landscape of the league,” he does not feel it is an insurmountable obstacle. He feels there are enough talented basketball players who would be interested in the academy. However, his first order of business was simply changing a losing culture.

“You have to have winning habits even when you are not winning,” Lange said. “It was just as important to me that our stationery was right as it was that we were prepared to beat Lafayette. Everything needed to change: our relationship with our athletic department, our academic attitudes, everything.”

Two years later, that much is accomplished.

“We are now finishing tight games,” Sprink said. “That is experience on the court, coaching, people buying into what coach wants to do and just believing in each other. With Corey, Kaleo and myself, we don’t ever go into a game thinking we are going to lose. That is a whole different attitude going on the court and knowing you have a chance to win the game. It gives us a swagger.”

And while playing Georgetown should be a monumental mismatch, the Mids now believe they at least have a chance.

“They are better than us,” Lange said. “They have better talent. That is not to take anything away from our kids. But if you play as a team you have a chance.”

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