The message was on Billy Lange's cell phone, waiting for him as he wearily boarded a bus for the long trip back to Annapolis from West Point three Sundays ago. Lange had just suffered through the worst loss of his nascent career as Navy's basketball coach, watching his team miss shot after shot in a humiliating 63-43 loss to an Army team that was 2-14 entering the game.
"Hang in there," the message said. "I know how tough losses like this are. Call me if you want to talk."
Billy Lange has gone through a difficult first season as coach of the Midshipmen.
(Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
The message was from someone who actually does know about tough losses: former Navy coach Paul Evans. Eighteen games into his first season at Navy, Lange decided to take him up on his offer. He called. He wanted to talk. As frustrating as his team's shooting had been, the fact that the Midshipmen had given up 63 points to a team averaging fewer than 40 a game in the Patriot League was even more disturbing.
"I feel like we need to play some zone," Lange said. "But when we've tried, it we lose our aggressiveness, we get passive. Our aggressiveness is our strength."
When Evans coached at Navy in the 1980s, he played a lot of zone defense, funneling shooters to David Robinson. Lange doesn't have anyone remotely resembling Robinson on his team, but he has boyhood memories of the teams Evans coached. They began talking about how to play zone and stay aggressive.
"I need to see what you're talking about," Lange said. "Can we get together?"
A couple of days later, Evans, 59, and Lange, 33, sat down at Chick & Ruth's, the famous downtown Annapolis deli that has been the hangout for the Maryland political crowd for years. Once, Gov. Marvin Mandel held court there over breakfast in the same booth every morning. Now, it was Evans holding court -- or at least drawing up defenses that could be used on a basketball court.
When Lange arrived at Navy last spring, two of his first phone calls were to ex-Navy coaches: Don DeVoe, who had just retired after 12 years at the academy, and Evans, who won more than 20 games each of his last three seasons at Navy, including a 30-5 record in 1985-86 en route to the NCAA tournament's final eight. He went from there to Pittsburgh, where he won two Big East titles and went to five NCAA tournaments only to get fired in 1995 because of a personality clash with his athletic director. He has lived in Annapolis since then, working as a volunteer coach at Gonzaga High School until last year and selling real estate.
"I knew I wanted to talk to Coach DeVoe because he had come into one of the toughest jobs in the country and won a lot of games," Lange said. "I remembered watching his teams when I was a kid, especially their win over Cleveland State in the Meadowlands in the Sweet 16 in '86. I remembered Robinson, of course, but they also had players like Doug Wojcik and Kylor Whitaker on that team. I thought if I could get players like that, we could be very good in the Patriot League."
Evans and Lange got together and talked business -- basketball and real estate. Evans ended up selling Lange his house. Then they moved on to basketball. Last spring, Evans decided against succeeding his friend Dick Myers at Gonzaga. As a result, he's had a lot more time this season to watch Navy play.
"Since he's here I wanted him to be part of the program again," Lange said. "As a young coach, if you have a basketball mind like that around and you don't reach out to him, you aren't real smart."
The day after the Army loss, Lange and Evans sat at Chick & Ruth's along with Lange's assistant, Joe Burke, and watched and listened as Evans drew diagrams and talked.
"What he showed us wasn't all that complicated," Lange said. "It was a matter of putting in a few slides for the kids to extend the defense on the perimeter, get to shooters and make us more aggressive. When I heard what he was saying, I thought it was something we could put in during a couple of practices and use that week."
The most aggressive form of zone in college basketball is the matchup zone that John Chaney has made famous at Temple. With Lange's Villanova background, he was very familiar with the matchup and had already seen it in the Patriot League because Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon plays an almost identical defense. The matchup has a lot of man-to-man principles in it -- following cutters to the basket rather than simply handing a cutter off to another defender coming to help on the inside. What Evans was suggesting was more of a pure zone -- let the cutters go, but with the notion of getting out on shooters so as not to turn passive playing a more standard 2-3 zone.