Three years ago, Navy dismissed its basketball coach, Bob Hamilton, although he had winning records in his four seasons at the academy. Since the Midshipmen had enjoyed only one above-.500 season in the 14 pre-Hamilton years, it was a source of wonder as to just what was wanted.

"Maybe we're a little naive here, but we still maintain an athletic philosophy that a sport should be entertaining and rewarding for the players," Athletic Director Bo Coppedge said. Left unsaid was that those victories under Hamilton were secured through a ball-control offense in which players were chastised for the slightest errors in execution.

If winning was no fun in those years, losing was not much fun the past two seasons, as successor Paul Evans struggled to 9-16 and 12-14 records while introducing a run-and-shoot system and sifting his talent to see who could handle it.

Suddenly, however, Navy has found the proper mix. It has 16 victories and, should it defeat George Mason here Saturday afternoon and win its opener in next week's ECAC South tournament in Richmond, would match the academy record of 18 triumphs.

More important, everybody is having fun--players, fans and even Coppedge, a football/wrestling man who savors the Midshipmen's fast-break shenanigans, behind-the-back passes and other accoutrements where he once snoozed through five-minute holding patterns.

"When I came here," Evans said, "I was specifically told to accomplish three things--to play a better schedule, to beat Army and to be exciting. I had always coached fast-break basketball and I knew we'd be more exciting. The rest has come, too, although it hasn't been easy."

The biggest success, of course, has come in the all-important Army game, with last week's triumph before an overflow crowd here giving Evans a 3-0 record against the Cadets. It also helped to settle his nerves.

"After we beat American earlier this year, we went out and celebrated," Evans said. "After Army, there's just a feeling of relief."

Once the Midshipmen brought in weak Division III teams to fatten the win column; all but two of this year's opponents are Division I. Next season, Navy will play its five ECAC South foes on a home-and-home basis, while making a six-game Pacific trip that includes Honolulu's Rainbow Classic.

To turn Navy's fortunes around, Evans has been forced to overcome stereotypes, both favorable and unfavorable. In that area lies the explanation for Evans' occasionally fierce referee-baiting, which has been known to make academy brass cringe.

"One big thing we've had to overcome is the tradition that Navy had nonathletes who were hatchet types on defense," Evans said. "Even though we were playing a zone defense, officials were still coming in here and blowing their whistles at us. They were afraid they'd be considered homers if they came here and didn't call a lot of fouls on us.

"This year, at last, we're shooting about a hundred more free throws than the opposition. A lot of it is because we go inside more, but part of it is better officiating. Some coaches still say we do overly aggressive things, which makes me laugh, because a lot of times we're not aggressive enough.

"Another problem is inconsistency. A lot of that is caused by things that happen in the hall, or the exams that come up every four weeks. There is a fallacy that Navy has such finely conditioned athletes. That's not quite true, because often they're drained by the academics. They work so hard that they don't get proper rest.

"Their life doesn't revolve around basketball like a normal Division I player, who plays summer ball and watches 100 games on TV. Can you imagine, on Wednesday, when we played Brooklyn College, Vernon Butler had three midterm exams? These kids deserve a lot of credit for the way they've overcome a lot of the distractions to play so well this year."