You may not have noticed, but basketball season has started. Tucked in behind all the hoopla surrounding football season are the first reports from practice, and notes from Patriot League media day. Make sure you’re checking Pete Medhurst’s blog, and as usual you can rely on Hoop Time to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening around the conference. Ron Snyder takes his first look at the Navy basketball team here.
I desperately want to share Pete’s optimism about this year’s team, but I just can’t. The preseason poll of league coaches and SIDs picked Navy to finish 7th, ahead of only Lafayette. Right now, I’m inclined to agree. Navy has as many (or more) questions surrounding it as any other team in the Patriot League.
Filling In The Gaps: A lot of the high hopes that people have for this year’s Navy team are probably left over from the end of last season. Navy never exactly looked good once it entered the Patriot League half of the schedule, but they did have a short stretch towards the end when they won 3 out of 4. Calvin White was the only senior on the team, so out of the 1854 points that Navy scored last season, the players who scored 1852 of them were all coming back. With the graduation losses that other schools in the conference were facing, Navy looked like it was ready to not only make a run at finishing in the top half of the league this year, but perhaps be a dark horse candidate to win it all.
Then came the exodus. Corey Johnson left the team to play football. Trey Stanton transferred to Rice. Bobby Fenske made his way to Westmont College after a layover in Colorado. Johnson and Stanton started all year, while Fenske started 10 of the last 12 games. When the dust settled, what was going to be a veteran squad had turned into a rebuilding project.
It’s debatable how much the loss of Johnson and Fenske really hurts. Johnson was a Patriot League All-Rookie team selection at point guard in 2005, but never really seemed to progress since then. He was injured for half of the following season, and despite starting all 30 games last year his numbers didn’t match his freshman campaign. In terms of sheer statistical production, Derek Young can probably do as much. Johnson’s defensive contributions might be harder to replace. Fenske was considered a prize recruit after initially committing to Air Force, only to be turned away due to non-existent asthma. A 6-8 forward who can shoot, Fenske could have developed into a nice player. As far as this year goes, though, shooting forwards aren’t exactly in short supply. There really isn’t that much difference between Fenske and Adam Teague, T.J. Topercer, and Scott Brooks. Well, except that Teague is more experienced, Topercer is more willing to bang around underneath the basket, and Brooks is far more athletic. Navy would be better off with Johnson and Fenske on the team, but they probably aren’t irreplaceable. Nevertheless, that assumption has yet to be proven.
Trey Stanton is a different story. A 6-3 guard trapped in a 6-10 body, Stanton’s skillset is unusual for players of his size. He was never really comfortable as a post player last year, and this year he wouldn’t have had to be. With the addition of what Billy Lange calls “traditional centers” in Mark Veazey and Jeremy Wilson, Stanton would have been free to create matchup problems on the perimeter all year while the two plebes took care of the grunt work inside. Stanton would also have been the one player in the conference who could match up defensively (at least on paper) with Holy Cross center Tim Clifford, who stands at 6-11 but isn’t afraid to take the outside shot. Stanton was a Patriot League All-Rookie selection last year and had tremendous potential. With him, Billy Lange could have put 4 players on the court at 6-9 or taller this year without sacrificing perimeter shooting too much. Without him, Navy loses an opportunity to be one of the more unique physical matchups in the Patriot League.
Misleading: Something else that feeds optimism about the outlook for this year is the fact that Navy led the Patriot League in 3-pointers made last season. Don’t be fooled. The teams that finished 1-2 in 3-pointers made last year, Navy and Lafayette, were the two teams at the bottom of the conference. If you want stats that reflect the league standings, look at defense and rebounding margin.
Plebe Pressure: Have you ever seen so much pressure put on two plebes going into a season? Navy had serious problems last year with rebounding (on both ends of the court), scoring underneath the basket, and defense. Apparently the answer to all of these problems is supposed to be Mark Veazey and Jeremy Wilson. That’s a lot to ask of a couple of freshmen. While nobody would ever claim that the Patriot League is a big man’s conference, it’s tough to rely on freshman post players in any league. Veazey and Wilson are tall, but they haven’t exactly filled out. Wilson is 6-9, 233, and Veazey is a beanpole at 6-10, 215. Are they strong enough to hold their ground? And yes, I am aware of Ben Biles, but up to this point he hasn’t shown much ability to do anything other than be tall. Any production out of him this year would be a bonus.
The hope here is that the addition of Veazey and Wilson will allow Navy to match up better defensively with other teams. If Navy can abandon the matchup zone that they’ve played for the last couple of years and go back to being a man-to-man team, then they should be in better position to grab rebounds. If that’s the extent of what Billy Lange wants to do with them, then the two freshmen just might be able to handle that. But if that’s the case…
Sprink Pressure: …then somebody– anybody— has to step up as a consistent scoring threat alongside Greg Sprink. The “Vegas” offense looked great in the non-conference schedule until coaches figured out that all it took to stop it was to guard Greg Sprink. As the season progressed, Sprink was forcing shots because nobody else on the team could score. Someone needs to get the pressure (and the defense) off of Greg so he can be more selective with his shots. So who can do it? We don’t want to ask too much of the big freshmen. Kaleo Kina has shown the ability to create his own shots at times, but he dribbles the ball off of his own foot just as often. If he learns to play under control, he’s probably the best bet. If T.J. Topercer can bring a Matt Fannin-style inside game to match his outside shooting ability, then he’d be a legitimate scoring threat. Or maybe a streaky shooter like Chris Harris can find some consistency. That’s a lot of “ifs” and “maybes,” though, and we haven’t seen more than brief flashes of scoring out of anyone other than Sprink.
Crunch Time: Is Billy Lange coaching for his job this year? Chet has had a fairly short leash with other coaches that weren’t competitive in the Patriot League. Despite the wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Navy hasn’t been a factor in the conference for quite some time. I like Billy Lange, and I have no doubt that the team is better now than it was when Lange took over. But considering that the team was possibly the worst in Division I at the end of the DeVoe era, that isn’t saying much. With the way that DeVoe mailed it in at the end, anyone with Lange’s energy was bound to improve the team at least a little bit. Has the team reached a plateau, or can they take the next step and finish in the top half of the conference? This is Lange’s 4th year, the time when coaches are usually expected to produce results. Navy has won 7 Patriot League games in the last two seasons combined. If they are unable to at least match that number this year alone, then I think Chet will make a move.
(That is, if NAAA can afford to. With Paul Johnson’s (well deserved) salary, the money to lure a proven head coach might not be there. That’s life when football pays the bills, and it might be Lange’s saving grace if Navy struggles again this season.)
And Finally: The most productive all-around player returning to the Patriot League this year is Greg Sprink. The most exciting player might be Army’s Jarell Brown. So who gets named Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year? Neither. That distinction goes to Holy Cross center Tim Clifford.
In case you were wondering, Sprink was ranked higher than Clifford last year in scoring, rebounding, and assists. In conference games, Clifford had more rebounds than Sprink, although Sprink still averaged more per game on the defensive glass. Sprink led the conference with 17.9 ppg in Patriot League play last year, and is the league’s highest-ranked returning 3-point shooter.
The Patriot League strikes again.