- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | Navy coach Billy Lange continued to play Kaleo Kina three seasons ago, game after game as the freshman endured a sometimes-difficult adjustment.

And just as often, Lange received e-mails from fans wondering just why the young coach was investing so much time in such a miscue-prone player.

The answer is all too evident now.

The excitable Kina is averaging 20.5 points to lead the Midshipmen (7-1) to their best start since the 1983-84 season entering Sunday’s BB&T; Classic meeting with Virginia Tech (4-3) at Verizon Center.

“What you hope down the line is that he ends up self-disciplining himself to be a good player,” Lange said. “It’s not about how me makes me look and how he makes our program look. This kid has infused this program with such passion that it desperately needed. It desperately, desperately, desperately needed it, and he brought it from his recruiting trip to now.”

Certainly, there are moments Kina’s unpredictability appears. But in Navy’s last three games - all victories - Kina is averaging 29 points as the Mids have used strong second halves to dispatch opponents.

At first glance, his 29-point performance Tuesday against Texas San Antonio was offset with 10 turnovers. But while Kina’s struggles didn’t help, he also played better in the second half.

There were no poor shots. There were plenty of trips to the foul line. And Kina was behind many of the passes to set up Navy’s sizzling 16-for-19 shooting in the second half.

“For me, when I have my turnovers, they usually come in spurts,” Kina said. “I’ll have some here, then I’ll be OK for a while, then it’ll happen again. It’s more about staying focused the whole time and realizing when I have to pick it up and slow it down.”

The scoring comes in bunches as well, especially this season. With the graduation of Greg Sprink, last year’s Patriot League player of the year, the Mids figured they would spread around his considerable scoring among a large returning supporting cast.

It meant guard Chris Harris would receive more looks, and Navy’s frontcourt might factor into the offense more as well. But Kina, who had seven 20-point games last year, also expanded his offense.

Assuming, of course, he would slow down.

Admittedly a guy who enjoys playing quickly, Kina catches himself careening out of control at times. But for the most part, he has maintained some stability - to the Mids’ substantial benefit.

“The biggest thing he’s starting to learn and understand is that he doesn’t have to make plays to make plays,” senior forward Adam Teague said. “He doesn’t have to force driving the ball or force taking shots. If Kaleo lets the game come to him, there’s so many different things he can do.”

The Hawaiian remains the nexus of Navy’s offense, a role he’s grown into over four seasons as a starter. His maturation reflects the growth of the Mids, who won 10 games in Kina’s freshman year (and Lange’s second) and last year earned the program’s first winning season since 2000-01.

All along, Lange observed a predictable but welcome tendency to energize the Mids every day, whether it was in practice or during games.

“That’s what coach loves about me,” said Kina, who is also averaging 5.6 rebounds. “You can’t teach somebody to play hard or play fast all the time. You’d rather tell a kid to slow it down rather than get some energy.”

In Kina’s first BB&T; appearance three years ago, he committed 11 turnovers in 22 minutes in a victory over Howard - undoubtedly one of the best examples of the “doozies” Lange concedes he has seen during Kina’s career.

But the good far outweighs the bad, and Kina provides the Mids a viable option in what might be their greatest showcase of the season.

“He almost plays too fired up, and I mean that in a very, very positive way,” Lange said. “He’s just so excited, so amped up, he wants to win so bad, cares about his teams so bad, wants to play so bad that he gets ahead of himself a little bit. Then once he settles in, you see what he’s capable of doing. That’s been his whole four years.”

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