In The Last Amateurs, John Feinstein made it clear that rest of the Patriot League didn’t like Navy. At the time the book was written, Navy was the powerhouse team in the conference, had the newest, flashiest arena, and generally just won a lot of basketball games. Other teams resented Navy, and that resentment manifested itself in many ways. Navy was the best team in the conference for most of the ’90s, but it has never had a conference Player of the Year. But things are different now. Now Bucknell has a new arena of their own and has set the new high water mark for accomplishment in the Patriot League. Holy Cross won the conference last year, and beat Notre Dame in the first round of the NIT in 2005. Navy, on the other hand, is just starting to emerge from what might have been the worst stretch in program history. Nobody seems to have the same disdain for Bucknell and Holy Cross that they once had towards Navy. The hard feelings towards the Mids must have thawed by now, right? Well, maybe. Greg Sprink only made second-team all-conference last year despite putting up solid numbers. As the league’s best returning scorer and all-around player, he was shunned for Preseason POY honors in favor of Holy Cross’ Tim Clifford. Now maybe Navy never had anyone that should have been named Player of the Year. Maybe Sprink didn’t deserve first-team recognition last year. And maybe league coaches and SIDs figured that Holy Cross would be the league favorite this year, so they just named the best player on the best team as their preseason POY. Maybe. But if Greg Sprink doesn’t win Patriot League Player of the Year for 2007-2008, you’ll know that it’s rigged.
In the most important Navy basketball game in over half a decade, Sprink had one of his finest performances. Navy took down American last night, 83-68, to grab a share of first place in the Patriot League with one game left to play. Navy now owns the tiebreaker with AU and can clinch the regular season title with a win in the season finale or an American loss. With the regular season champion ensured a place in at least the NIT, Navy has a chance to earn its first postseason appearance in a decade. Greg Sprink led the team in scoring (34), rebounding (5), and assists (7). He hit 6 3-pointers, worked inside to get to the free throw line, and kicked the ball out to open shooters. It was a complete game.
The same can’t really be said for the Mids as a whole. Reading the wrong stats in the boxscore can give you a very different impression about how this game went. American dominated Navy on the glass early, and ended up with a 39-30 rebounding edge. The Eagles shot a whopping 48% from the field to Navy’s 39.7%, thanks in large part to several way-too-easy buckets scored by American players standing all alone underneath the basket. But Navy took much better care of the ball. American had 21 turnovers, while Navy had only 8. 10 of those turnovers were the result of Navy steals. The Mids were less efficient than AU when it came to shooting the ball, but thanks to their defense, they had more opportunities. On this night, quantity was better than quality.
This wasn’t the first time this year that turnover differential has been the deciding factor in a Navy win. In fact, it has been the norm in conference play. Why is that? I think I have an answer. Navy is a team that has rarely had an inside presence. Athletic big men are the most scarce commodity in all of basketball, and unless they are either undersized (Hassan Booker), very unpolished coming out of high school (Sitapha Savane), or prone to growth spurts (David Robinson), those types of players have much higher-profile offers than from Navy. Offensively, it’s easy to see how Coach Lange makes up for this; by running and shooting threes. On the other end of the court, it’s a little tougher. Most undersized teams try to mask their deficiency by hunkering down in a 2-3 zone to try to make it difficult for their opponents to get the ball to their big men. Lange takes the opposite approach. Rather than attempt to cover up his team’s lack of an inside presence, he concedes it. Navy doesn’t play underneath the basket. Instead, the Mids push their defense to the perimeter. This is why Navy stinks at defensive rebounding– we don’t have anybody around the basket. It’s also why the numbers aren’t nearly as bad on the other end of the court. Navy is outrebounded by an average of 2.3 boards per game on the defensive glass. But on the offensive end, that differential is only .6 rebounds/game. The Mids are in better position on offense.
There aren’t really any big men to exploit Lange’s strategy in the Patriot League other than Tim Clifford. While the Holy Cross center lights up the scoreboard whenever he plays the Mids, the rest of the league doesn’t have much more of an inside presence than Navy does. Navy’s defense gives up some easy backdoor layups sometimes–and a lot of rebounds– but it also generates 9.2 steals per game, good for 1st in the conference and 20th nationally. Rather than try to hide his team’s weaknesses, Billy Lange has chosen to take the fight to his opponents by emphasizing Navy’s strengths. And now he’s one game away from putting Navy back on top.
That loss to Howard feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
|BEHOLD YOUR PATRIOT LEAGUE
PLAYER OF THE YEAR.