For Navy and AU, Plenty Is on the Line

By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's that time of year. Selection Sunday is three weeks from today. The bracketologists are going through their annual orgy of who is on and who is off the bubble, RPI breakdowns, strength-of-schedule analyses and predictions on which leagues will receive the most bids. It is loud now and will get louder and louder as March 16 draws closer.

In the Patriot League, there is no bracketology noise. The formula is very simple: Whichever team wins the conference tournament final March 14 will see its name on the NCAA tournament board two days later. Everyone else goes home.

"It makes your life pretty simple in March," Jeff Jones said recently. "Keep winning and you keep playing. Period."

Jones is in his eighth season as the coach at American University, which joined the Patriot League a year after he arrived. Three times, the Eagles have reached the championship game only to come up one win short of what players call "the Dance."

Billy Lange hasn't been nearly that close in his four years at Navy. In fact, during Lange's first three seasons, the Midshipmen were 34-52 and never got out of the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Both coaches know all about bracketology: Lange was an assistant coach at Villanova before he took the Navy job. Jones was the head coach at Virginia for eight years and took five teams to the NCAA tournament, including one that reached the region final.

Now, both men would just like to be part of the selected 65. On Wednesday in Annapolis, American and Navy will play a game that has huge ramifications for both. Right now, they are first and second in the Patriot League standings.

If American wins Wednesday, it will clinch first place in the regular season, meaning the Patriot League tournament will go through Bender Arena -- the league plays all its tournament games at the home site of the higher-seeded team. If Navy wins Wednesday to sweep the season series with American, it could clinch the top seed with a victory Saturday at Colgate.

"These kids have come a long way," Lange said the morning after the Midshipmen had beaten defending league champion Holy Cross, completing the season sweep of a team it had lost to 17 straight times entering this season. "It's really been an evolutionary thing. A lot of it is about all the cliches we coaches use: playing for one another, being unselfish, wanting to achieve for Navy rather than for themselves.

"One thing I've figured out as a coach is that we're all selfish by nature. Why wouldn't you worry about you first? When our kids first get here, if they've got some talent, they get to play right away. It's natural that they think about themselves and their playing time and their scoring. But as they become a part of the brigade and a part of the academy, they learn that there's more to it than that. We're a little older this year, a little more mature, and I feel as if they've bought into what we're saying, all those cliches I'm talking about."

The case also can be made that Navy's coach is more mature now than when he first arrived four years ago. Lange was 32 when he arrived at Navy, and he found himself in a league full of accomplished, veteran coaches such as Jones, Holy Cross's Ralph Willard, Bucknell's Pat Flannery and Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon.

"There were times when I questioned myself," he said. "I've always had a lot of self-belief, but those first few years we were getting hammered and I wondered if I could get us to the point where we could compete in the league. We'd go into Holy Cross and Bucknell and just get throttled. But I think I learned watching those guys work. One thing I figured out is that we had to be ourselves. We can't be Bucknell or Holy Cross; we have to coach to our kids' strengths."

Lange's only senior starter is Greg Sprink, who leads the league in scoring at 21.3 points per game. He has a gifted guard in Kaleo Kina and a third consistent scorer in junior Chris Harris. But the difference, at least symbolically, might be the play of freshman Romeo Garcia, a classic dirty-work player who plays defense, rebounds, gets loose balls and allows the scorers a chance to score. Navy hasn't had players like that for a while.

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