In this era of big men in college basketball, Cliff Maurer hardly would create a stir on most campuses. Here at the Naval Academy, however, heads turn to watch Maurer duck as he enters a classroom.
Maurer, a 6-foot-10 junior from Orefield, Pa., is the tallest player in Naval Academy history. More important to the revival of the Midshipmen's court fortunes, he may be the most improved player from one season to the next.
A year ago, Maurer had 30 points and 22 rebounds in 16 cameo roles. Already this season, in five games, he has more than doubled both figures.
"He started from nowhere," said Navy Coach Paul Evans. "In high school, he played because he was big, that was all. This is his first time in a program where he's a big contributor.
"We brought him along slowly last year, because we didn't want him to fail. Now he's a lot stronger, he has a lot more confidence and he's doing a job for us."
Part of Maurer's improvement can be attributed to increased weight. When he entered the Naval Academy, a fraction of an inch over 6-8, he weighed 180 pounds. Now he weighs 215.
"In high school, it wasn't that bad because I was four or five inches taller than anyone else and I was skying over everybody," Maurer said. "But once I came here, I found I was pushed out of the way pretty easily.
"I played JV ball my first year and worked on the weights and got stronger. I thought I could have had more playing time last year and it was tough sitting on the bench. But I was up and down and I guess the coach wasn't sure he could count on me in tough spots."
Maurer's best effort as a sophomore came against Andre Gaddy of George Mason, as he scored 10 points and had eight rebounds in eight minutes. But Mark West of Old Dominion removed any ideas of greatness, leaving Maurer floundering.
In the offseason, Maurer lifted weights and jumped rope. He also played a lot of basketball. Except for a week at sea on a patrol craft, he was even able to play during summer training--at Norfolk for amphibious duty, Pensacola for flight indoctrination, Quantico for Marine training and Groton, Conn., for submarine work.
"Wherever we were, I got in a game," Maurer said. "Then I went home and spent a lot of time with Brant Weidner, my high school teammate who is the starting center at William and Mary. We found games all the time. They were older guys and they didn't have the best skills, but they were pushing me around and I learned to get physical inside."
Maurer always has been aggressive, but he has not necessarily channeled that trait properly, resulting in frequent and costly reach-in fouls.
"I have to improve my defense a lot," Maurer said. "I still get in foul trouble too quickly. Maybe I have to play tougher with my feet, rather than my hands. But I feel comfortable with the team."
"He's trying a little too hard still," Evans noted. "He's very aggressive and, when he makes a mistake, he tends to follow it with another mistake. Last year, we didn't care if he picked up quick fouls, because we didn't need him. Now we need to keep him in there."
Maurer's improvement, along with sensational play by captain Dave Brooks and the surprising contribution of plebe Vernon Butler out of High Point High School, has brought Navy a 4-1 record, with the loss coming in a hard-fought struggle at seventh-ranked Iowa.
If the Midshipmen beat Harvard here Saturday afternoon, it will give them their fastest start since the 1959-60 team won its first six games.
"Interest in basketball is picking up a little bit here," Maurer said. "After Christmas, if we continue to play hard, the brigade's attitude should really pick up. The Iowa tournament was quite a success for us and Dave Brooks put on a show. If we can keep it going, we think we can make the NCAAs."