Big props up to The BirdDog, "the unofficial peanut gallery of Navy sports." (PS: BEAT ARMY!)
With only two wins in the Patriot League and only 8 overall, 2012-13 seemed like a rough year for the Midshipmen. How does your fan base feel about last year's results?
Nobody likes 8-23, obviously, but anyone that understands service academy basketball knew going in that it was going to be a rough season. Ed DeChellis isn't rebuilding the Navy program; it's completely new construction. His predecessor, Billy Lange, wasn't quite as terrible as most Navy fans would have you believe, but his one undeniable, program-killing fault was his horrible player retention. So many players left the Navy basketball program under Lange that of the 19 players on the Navy roster in DeChellis' first season, 15 were either freshmen or sophomores. Navy used 16 different starting lineups in 29 games that year just to find a combination that worked. Last season was no different; 12 of the 15 players on Navy's roster were freshmen or sophomores, and there were no seniors.
At a school like Navy, that's a problem. Players ready to step in and start as freshmen don't usually end up at a service academy. Army was the exception last season when they managed to finish a game over .500 while starting four freshmen, but their fifth starter was unanimous all-conference forward Ella Ellis, a senior. That senior leadership makes a difference; Army could turn to Ellis to get a tough basket to stop a run while Navy would have games spiral out of control. Navy is slowly developing a core group of players who will fill that same role, but it's a process.
What's the biggest piece you've lost since last season?
Not much. Everyone who averaged at least 10 minutes per game last season is back, including all 5 starters and 91% of the team's scoring.
Who is the player who needs to step up the most this year?
When you finish 8-23, it's hard to single out one player that needs to step up. They all do. If I had to pick one in particular, though, it's forward Will Kelly. Navy might be the worst rebounding team of the last decade, and last year's ranking of 336th in rebounding margin certainly didn't do anything to change that status. With Lange's up-tempo style it wasn't the end of the world, but with the more deliberate tempo that DeChellis favors, every possession is more valuable. Navy's defense isn't bad at all, but that effort was wasted far too often last year as the Mids gave up 361 second-chance points. The task of changing all of this falls primarily on Kelly, a 6-9 sophomore that worked his way into the starting lineup by the end of last year. Navy desperately needs a post presence, and Kelly added 20 pounds over the offseason in an effort to become more physical under the basket. It might be too much to ask for Kelly to be a reliable scoring threat this season, but if he can help get Navy to a more respectable rebounding margin, it will pay immediate dividends.
Who is the player UVa fans ought to look out for the most?
The best part of an otherwise painful 2012–2013 season was the emergence of Tilman Dunbar at point guard. Dunbar made the Patriot League all-rookie team after setting the conference record for assists by a freshman and was second among league freshmen in scoring. He was the key to Navy's early success, although he might've tried to do a little too much toward the end of the year as Navy struggled through conference play, Still, he should only get better as he matures. Also keep an eye on Worth Smith, who is Navy's best athlete and probably the best all-around player on the team. He's had some trouble staying healthy, but if he does I think he will emerge as an excellent Patriot League player.
What's your outlook for the season? What's a success, what's a failure, and what's something you can live with?
I'm a lot more optimistic for this season than I probably should be. Navy couldn't rebound last year. They couldn't score, either. The Patriot League certainly didn't get any easier with the addition of Loyola and Boston University. All the ingredients for another long season are there. Nevertheless, all that returning experience has to count for something, right? (Right???)
As bad as things seemed last year, though, you still got the sense that the team was headed in the right direction. DeChellis' first season was sort of a scramble for survival, but last year (thanks in large part to the addition of Dunbar) you could see flashes of where he ultimately wants to take this program. That's what I think of when I look at this season; not in terms of wins and losses, but just getting better. Navy is probably another year away from breaking into the top half of the league, but with basically the same team back with an extra year of experience, they should be good enough to be competitive with the rest of the league and maybe win a game or two that they weren't expected to. After losing 11 out of 14 conference games by double digits a year ago, I'd be very happy with that.