On the Veterans Classic and Navy Basketball

Well, I’m officially an “old grad.”

I came to this realization as I took my seat in Alumni Hall to watch Temple and North Carolina warm up before game one of the Veterans Classic. We had some fun events on the yard when I was a mid, I guess, with the usual slate of concerts and such. There was an advanced screening of Apollo 13 hosted by Jim Lovell himself that was pretty cool. We certainly had good basketball; Navy was the class of the Patriot League. But we never had anything like the Veterans Classic.

I attended the inaugural event, and after that experience, I knew that would be back every year. It turns Alumni Hall into the epicenter of a hoopsquake. How often will you get to see the blue-blood, top-ranked team in the country square off against a traditional Philadelphia Big 5 power in the intimacy of a 5,000-seat arena? How many Patriot League teams will be able to get a two-time national champion to play on their home court? It’s an incredible event, and I still have a hard time believing that it happens at the Naval Academy.

And that’s how I know I’m an old grad now. As I sat there, I kept thinking that I wish something like this was around when I was going to school. I hoped that there were enough sports fans among the Brigade who appreciated it. Judging by their turnout, it looks like there is. I’m glad, because in a way, the Veterans Classic is about them.

When it comes to recruiting tools, the best thing that the Naval Academy has going for it is the Brigade itself. It’s made up of great people doing great things, and the more the public seen them, the better. I’m amazed sometimes at how service academies can be viewed as reclusive secret societies in certain sectors of the media. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s why they march through town on the way to attending every football game. To see them is to be impressed by them, and some will be inspired to join them.

The Veterans Classic is one more way to put the Brigade on display. The experience is about more than basketball. Visiting teams spend a couple of days in Annapolis, getting a taste of the military and seeing how midshipmen live their lives. As they learn about it, so too does the media who cover them, and they relay those stories back to readers and viewers following the team. The message they send is one of high esteem. North Carolina coach Roy Williams reflected on this after his game:

It was great to see what they have to go through as students and human beings. We go to a public school where we have freedom, but they have a schedule where every single day they have to do the same thing. I have so much respect for them. They can do so many other things with their lives but they have decided to come here and be on such a strenuous schedule. I have so much respect for that. It was just great to see what they go through. I had a great time sitting with them at lunch yesterday ans hearing their experiences.

The Tar Heels showed their appreciation by lining up in front of the midshipmen in attendance before their game and tossing t-shirts to them. It was a nice gesture of respect from one group of college kids to another.

Of course, the Veterans Classic is more than just a field trip for visiting teams. It’s also the start of the Navy basketball season, although in that function, things didn’t go quite as well. Despite racing to an early lead, the Mids were eventually worn down by Florida, falling to the Gators by a score of 59-41.

In all honesty, this year’s event lacked that extra bit of pizzazz that came from the Mids taking Michigan State to the wire last year. Navy looked like a team that had lost its top two scorers from last season, and after an initial flurry saw the Mids up 9-2 early, Florida took their first lead of the game with about 9 minutes left in the first half and never relinquished it. Navy had a chance to cut the lead to only 5 points going into halftime, but a missed jumper by Zach Fong with seven seconds left turned into a fast break the other way that led to a 3-point play. Instead of going into the locker room down 5, the Mids were down 10, and they never got any closer the rest of the way.

Worth Smith and Brandon Venturini were the cornerstones of the Navy team the last two seasons, and without them, the Mids find themselves in search of an identity. Well, partially. On the defensive end, they know exactly who they are, playing a feisty man-to-man that will keep them in most games. When it comes to offense, though, it’s hard to point to any one thing that Navy is built to do. Do they feed the ball under the basket to Will Kelly? Pick-and-roll? Do they shoot the 3-pointer? Against Florida, Navy was unable to get the ball inside and had to resort to jumpers that didn’t fall. While there are no Floridas in the Patriot League, it’s still probably not the look that Coach DeChellis wants to go for.

The question, then, is where the points are going to come from, and it appears that an answer is emerging. The Mids played the College of Charleston on Monday, and that game ended up going much as the Florida game did; Navy sprinted out to an early lead, and then the shots stopped falling. Unlike the Florida game, though, the Mids were able to climb back into it in the second half. Shawn Anderson was able to create his own shots, drive to the basket, and get to the line. He finished with 21 points, while fellow sophomore Jace Hogan had 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Mids carried that second half momentum into last night’s game against USC Upstate, and came away with a 67-55 win. Shawn Anderson again led the way with 18 points, while Hogan and Tillman Dunbar both were in double digits. Perhaps, then, that identity is emerging with Anderson taking the role of Worth Smith. Hopefully that’s the case, because after Sunday’s game against Goucher, Navy’s next seven games will be played away from Alumni Hall.

The Mids play good defense, have a capable point guard, and a pair of big men in Kelly and Edward Alade that both had moments of brilliance last year. That’s a solid core to build a team around. If Anderson and Hogan can continue to develop into reliable scoring threats, then there is every reason to believe that Navy can finish in the top half of the Patriot League, and certainly better than the last place finish that was predicted for them in preseason polling. The Veterans Classic was a great start, but I’m looking forward to a great finish.

 

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