I don’t take vacations as often as I should. Not that I’m a workaholic or anything, but my wife has a weird schedule that doesn’t sync up very well with mine when it comes to taking time off. The problem with never taking vacations– other than the obvious– is that on the rare occasions when we do take one, we feel a lot of pressure to make sure we’re packing in as much fun as possible. Every second just has to be filled with excitement, and we can’t miss out on anything our destination has to offer since we don’t know when we’ll be able to take another trip. Ironically, the pressure to have fun ends up adding a layer of stress that makes everything less fun.
The same thing happens to me when I make it up to Annapolis. I don’t go anywhere near as often as I should; the last time I attended a home football game was against Central Michigan in 2010. I was determined to go to a game this year, and considered San Jose State since my class was having our reunion that weekend. Then the Veterans Classic was announced, and after that the choice was obvious (sorry, ’99). This was an event I had to see, and by the time last week rolled around I could barely contain my excitement for it. But as my trip grew closer, I started wondering: was I setting myself up for disappointment? Was I putting too much pressure on myself to have fun at this event? Was there any chance the Veterans Classic could possibly live up to the expectations I had built up in my head?
As it turns out, it blew them away.
I grew up with Navy basketball. I’ve been to ECAC, CAA, and Patriot League tournament finals, home games against Pitt, Auburn, and Wake Forest, and of course Army-Navy. Each of those was awesome in its own way, but the Veterans Classic was on a whole different level. There was a bit of an NCAA Tournament vibe to the whole affair, with back-to-back games, the VCU band and the D&B providing the soundtrack, press row wrapping around both baselines, and fans from four different teams filling the arena. It took a while for the Michigan State and Navy fans to make their way in, but by halftime of Tennessee-VCU, most of the announced attendance of 5699 had arrived. And it was glorious.
I’ve never seen Alumni Hall so alive. In a lot of ways, the Veterans Classic demonstrated the building’s true potential. Sometimes when you go to a game at Alumni, it feels like the multi-purpose facility it was designed to be; home to Forrestal Lectures and touring opera companies as much as anything else. On Friday night, though, it was simply a fantastic basketball arena. It’s a modern facility, large enough to handle the crowds of a major event like this, but cozy enough that every seat gives its occupant an up-close-and-personal view of the game that you wouldn’t usually get when teams of this caliber match up. The new videoboard, a packed house, and boisterous Mids all helped to create a fantastic atmosphere, making Alumni Hall the center of the basketball universe for one amazing night.
What really put the event over the top, though, was how well Navy played. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo spoke during the postgame press conference about how this is Ed DeChellis’ best Navy team, and clearly better than what he had observed on film. Izzo seemed almost annoyed over that last part, perhaps feeling a bit like the victim of a bait-and-switch. He wasn’t alone in observing Navy’s improvement; the differences between this year’s squad and those of the last few seasons were noticeable right away. It’s not as if Navy hasn’t been able to keep it close against strong opponents before, even coming out on top in a few of those games. Usually, though, that would have been the result of some superhuman shooting by Brandon Venturini or Kevin Alter from 3-point range. That wasn’t the case on Friday; the Mids only shot 29.4% from beyond the arc. Instead, Navy did everything else well, and was able to match the Spartans punch-for-punch.
Any time Michigan State put together a run, Navy was able to keep things from getting out of hand and climb their way back into it. It was a more composed performance than we’ve seen in a long time. Clearly, getting Tilman Dunbar back at point guard was a big part of that, which probably isn’t too much of a surprise. What was a surprise was the play of big men Will Kelly and Edward Alade. We had heard before the season that Alade in particular was making significant strides, and so far he’s proved it, scoring in double digits in each of Navy’s first two games. If Navy finally has a legitimate scoring threat underneath the basket, it will take a lot of pressure off of guys like Venturini since the Mids will no longer be forced to live and die by the jump shot.
On a macro level, Navy should benefit from finally having a core group of juniors and seniors anchoring the roster. Freshmen and sophomores coming into the program get to provide depth instead of being in the starting lineup. Rather than being forced to use underclassmen for everything, against Michigan State DeChellis was able to pick and choose situations for his younger players that suited their strengths. They responded well, too, especially Jace Hogan and Shawn Anderson, both of whom played significant minutes. Bryce Dulin was added to that mix against Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the injury to Worth Smith is already putting that depth to the test and forcing DeChellis to use more of those freshmen than he’d probably like to. As Smith, Michael Brown, and Kendall Knorr get healthy (hopefully), though, Navy should be at its strongest when it begins Patriot League play. Even after Sunday’s disappointing performance against Notre Dame, there is reason to be optimistic about the Navy team. With any luck, the Veterans Classic will serve as a springboard for the rest of the season; both for a team learning how to win, and for fans in attendance who caught a glimpse of just how much fun Navy basketball can be.
That’s ultimately what the lasting impact of the Veterans Classic will be. Yes, it’s a fantastic day of basketball, and one that I will absolutely attend next year as well. More importantly, it can be a springboard. Hopefully it will prove to be helpful in getting this season moving in the right direction, but it’s also something the program can build on over the long-term. The annual matchup with Notre Dame helps the football coaches attract service academy recruits who want a chance to prove themselves against college football royalty, and is something that sets Navy apart from its fellow service academies. The Veterans Classic could have the same effect against the rest of the Patriot League. Not only is Navy going to be playing name-brand competition, but they’ll be doing it on their home floor. That barely happens at all in the Patriot League, and for it to happen on an annual basis is unheard of. The event also highlights the quality of Navy’s facilities; no other Patriot League arena could host such an event. And how many coaches have the kind of clout among their peers to be able to persuade them to come to Annapolis? The Veterans Classic was a great demonstration of the kind of respect that Ed DeChellis has, which only adds to his credibility on the recruiting trail. No one thing will ever be a recruiting silver bullet that guarantees success, but when most of your recruiting is done against the likes of the Patriot League, Ivy League, MAAC, etc., hosting an event like the Veterans Classic sets you apart.
It isn’t just the basketball program that stands to benefit from the Veterans Classic; the school as a whole does, too. Compare the Veterans Classic to the All-Military Classic that rotated between Air Force, Army, The Citadel, and VMI. Sure, games against other military schools can be fun, and Navy will be playing Army, VMI, and The Citadel over the course of this season. But if you’re hoping to put your school out on display, isn’t a tournament of these teams sort of preaching to the choir? Who is going to be watching the All-Military Classic that isn’t already familiar with service academies? Nobody. That’s not the case with the Veterans Classic, though. Story after story was written about the visiting teams’ experiences on the yard, and all of them were positive. More importantly, these stories reached an audience that might not have been aware of what the Naval Academy was all about. As the teams learned about midshipman life and Navy values, their fans reading these stories learned right along with them. Some of those fans will be high school students that hadn’t considered the Naval Academy, but will see all of this and decide they want to take a closer look. Others will be parents who will suggest, “What about the Naval Academy?” when sitting down with their children to talk about colleges when it might not have occurred to them to say so before. Events like the Veterans Classic keep the Naval Academy in the mainstream and help it to reach a greater number of qualified admissions candidates. It makes for a better Brigade. This has been a public relations bonanza for USNA.
After the games were played, there was nothing but praise for the job that Coach DeChellis and the Naval Academy did in hosting the event. “Ed DeChellis has got a salesman in me, because I’ve got nothing but good things to say about everything that has gone on here,” said Izzo. “It was first class, done well, and was a nice place to play.”
Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall echoed Izzo’s sentiments and noted how it affected his players personally. “It was the most fun I’ve had since my wedding day. I had the chance to relax and visit with folks. There were some once in a lifetime opportunities,” he said. After his players got a taste of what midshipmen do, Tyndall said they appreciated their own situation even more. “I had a couple guys on our team that you never would think tell me that they had it pretty good. It was very impactful and we were humbled to be a part of it.”
VCU head coach Shaka Smart might have said it best. “It’s been a phenomenal experience. I am so glad that we were invited and that we chose to participate in this event,” said Smart. “I think it’s been a tremendous experience for our guys. Yesterday we went on a terrific tour of the Naval Academy, got to meet a ton of great people, and got to have lunch with the midshipmen. I think it gave our coaches and players a real appreciation of what goes on here.”
“This was a first class event. The people at the Naval Academy did a phenomenal job. For any team that has the opportunity, they need to get here.”
That kind of praise will only help to make this an event in demand with other coaches and help it grow. Let’s hope that’s exactly what happens, for the good of both the team and the school.
Maybe I’m guilty of being an optimist, but I feel like Navy basketball has enormous potential. The team, despite having struggled for several years, is consistently near the top of the Patriot League in attendance. If it’s that good now, how good can it be once the program starts winning again? Could the Veterans Classic have reintroduced fans to just how fun Navy basketball can be? Will they come out to Alumni Hall to create a real home-court advantage for a team that looks like it’s finally on the rise? Can this be the one final nudge that pushes this boulder over the top of the hill and gets it rolling? I think it can be, and I’m more excited than ever to find out.