- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — Billy Lange watched his first Navy team lose to Gettysburg a night earlier, so there were probably any number of reasons he would pop in a tape of the 2001 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy team he coached to the Division III Sweet 16.

It was a day after Lange didn’t even bother to play Greg Sprink, a freshman who contributed some but was particularly sluggish in practice for the Midshipmen that week. But as he assessed the identity of his old team — guard-oriented, capable of moving the ball, driving and kicking it out to an open man — Lange had an epiphany.

Of all the players he inherited with the Mids, Sprink most resembled the guys who created past success.

“I remember saying to myself that night, ‘I just have to go through it with him,’ ” Lange recalled this week.

So he has. And more than three years later, Sprink averages a Patriot League-best 20.9 points as the Midshipmen (15-12, 8-4) enter tonight’s showdown for first place with American (17-10, 9-3) at Alumni Hall.

The germination of his productive career came a day after Lange’s bleary-eyed film session. Lange called Sprink into his office and told the surprised freshman he would start the next game.

“It showed me how much faith and how much time and effort he wanted to put into my development, not only as a person but as a basketball player and the confidence he had in me,” the 6-foot-5 Sprink said. “That kind of showed me a lot.”

There were caveats. It wasn’t guaranteed to be permanent, and Lange promised to keep pushing Sprink as much as he had throughout the preseason.

But the mutual commitment was there — from Lange in considering the long-term ramifications for the program and from Sprink to continue to come early and stay late to improve his game.

There were competitive bumps. The Mids went 10-18 in consecutive seasons as both Sprink and Lange grew into their roles. Last season, Navy couldn’t build on a 9-3 start and wound up 14-16. And just as the team could play uneven at times, so could Sprink.

“I know my freshman and sophomore year and even a little bit last year, if I wasn’t scoring and wasn’t having a good game, I kind of became my own person and went away from the whole oneness of the team,” Sprink said. “I think that’s one way how I’ve matured.”

With a little growth and a heavy reliance on perimeter play (Navy used a five-guard set for much of the second half of Saturday’s victory at Army), the Midshipmen are playing meaningful games in late February for the first time since 2001.

“Throughout the whole process, Greg has been his mainstay,” junior guard Kaleo Kina said. “Without him, we’d probably still be a good team, but he’s the piece that shows us how to persevere through everything.”

Everything covers quite a bit, from quickly committing himself to a coach who didn’t recruit him to enduring a lot of losing to showing up at Halsey Field House at 6:30 a.m. over the summer to take some extra shots.

Yet it’s rubbed off on a team with only two seniors on the roster.

“He has transcended our program, in my opinion, from a group of guys that just come here to play basketball into a bunch of guys who want to become basketball players and want to work on their games,” Lange said. “It has permeated through our whole basketball program.”

In recent weeks, he has become the sort of player who can take over a game without scoring. Sprink grabbed 12 rebounds and had two assists in the final minutes to secure the victory Saturday.

In short, the only cornerstone player for Lange’s system three years ago is the prototype for what Navy needs to win, now and in the future.

“You have shoes you need to fill, and you’re being told you can be that type of player,” Sprink said. “I don’t want to let coach down. If he sees that in me, I believe in what he sees is the truth of what’s going on. I don’t want to say it puts extra pressure on me, but at the same time it kind of does to want to fill that role and be the piece of the puzzle that brings everybody together.”

Today’s game

AMERICAN (17-10, 9-3) AT NAVY (15-12, 8-4)

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Alumni Hall, Annapolis

Radio: AM-1430

Outlook: Navy leads the series 35-31, including a 77-66 victory at Bender Arena on Jan. 30. The Eagles have won six straight and can wrap up the outright Patriot League title (and homecourt advantage throughout the conference tournament) with a victory. American’s most notable achievement is a 67-59 victory at Maryland on Dec. 22, but Jeff Jones’ team also owns a 10-6 road record. American guard Garrison Carr, who has made a Patriot League-record 111 3-pointers this season, averages a team-high 18.3 points.

Patrick Stevens

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