Paul Evans was watching his Navy team warm up before practice the other day in the Carrier Dome when Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim walked over to greet him.
"Hey Jim, where are the gifts?" Evans asked, breaking into a sly grin. "The last time we played in the Carrier Classic, we got nice gifts."
Boeheim didn't even giggle. "Home court, home court," he said. "All I've heard all week is home court. Why is everyone always getting on us?"
Evans has little sympathy for Boeheim. He knows he will have enough problems Sunday when the Midshipmen (28-4) face Boeheim's talented Syracuse team (26-5) and 30,000 hometown fans in the second round of the NCAA tournament's East regional.
The last time the Midshipmen played here -- in the Carrier Classic last December -- Syracuse bombed them, 89-67. "The final score of the game wasn't indicative," Boeheim said today.
"Yeah," Evans said, "They should have won by 30."
Wisecracks aside, Navy is a much better team now than it was in December. That was evident Friday, when the Midshipmen devastated Tulsa in the second half en route to an 87-68 rout.
"Earlier in the year, the best we could do was play well for 23, maybe 24 minutes," Evans said. "We had bad spurts in almost every game. Now I think we're more consistent, more likely to put together a whole game."
That is exactly what Navy will have to do if it is to pull off an upset. Syracuse drubbed Brown, 101-52, and the team has been playing excellent basketball for the last month, most notably Dwayne (Pearl) Washington.
The electrifying point guard seems finally to have developed some consistency. His jump shot is going in, he is turning the ball over less and he is getting the ball to the right spot regularly.
His quickness and Syracuse's team quickness will be a major problem for Navy. If the Midshipmen can handle the pressure defense and get the ball inside to David Robinson and Vernon Butler the way they did against Tulsa, they will have a chance.
Robinson, all fluid grace and quickness, had 30 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks Friday. Butler, neither graceful nor quick, had 25 points and 11 rebounds.
They are a wonderful combination to watch: Robinson, a natural athlete who spurted to 6 feet 11 after entering the academy, and Butler, a gym rat who has almost willed himself into being a basketball player. Robinson makes pro scouts drool. Butler just makes opponents miserable.
"A lot of people look at me and they think that our whole team spends the week out on a ship and then comes onto dry land on the weekends to play the games," Butler said today. "Coach Evans says my vertical jump is just over the morning newspaper.
"That's why I have to be very aware of what excellent athletes Syracuse has. When we played here in December, I took some shots that I thought were good shots, and they got blocked. I have to be aware of that."
Although Evans is justifiably concerned about playing here, he thinks his team is much better equipped to handle this tournament and all its requisite pressures than it was a year ago.
"Last year, after we beat LSU in the first round , the kids were really exposed to the hype and exposure for the first time," Evans said. "When we played Maryland, we were emotionally drained. We had kids lying on the floor trying to catch their breath at halftime. I don't think that will happen this time."
In fact, the Navy players seem to be enjoying themselves here. They are loose, ready to play and, unlike most college athletes, not passing out stock answers.
Even more than Robinson, Butler personifies the program Evans has built. He has steadily improved since his freshman season and is a player with no pro ambitions who simply loves the game.
"Next year at this time I'll probably be in Athens Ga. getting trained for the supply corps," Butler said. "That's why this kind of thing is so exciting for me. To have been part of the two best teams in Navy history and to play in this tournament two years in a row has been great.
"I thought I would be calm this time, but last night after we won, I was so excited I couldn't sleep. This is just a lot of fun for all of us."
It is fun to envision a team with Butler, 6-1 Doug Wojcik and Carl Liebert, a basketball trivia buff, competing against Washington, Rafael Addison and Rony Seikaly. The latter three undoubtedly will command six-figure NBA salaries in the near future. Butler and Whitaker will graduate this spring to commissions worth about $19,000.
"We've been the Rodney Dangerfields for so long, it's almost like we aren't anymore," Butler said. "After we beat LSU last year, we got a lot of attention. Now, we know how to deal with it. I think we'll be ready for Syracuse. I think we'll give them a good game."
As Louisiana State proved so graphically today with an 83-81 victory over Memphis State in Baton Rouge, home court means plenty in the NCAA tournament.
Southern California Athletic Director Mike McGee flew here Friday to watch Navy play and to ask Evans to meet with him in Los Angeles when Navy's season is over to discuss the coaching vacancy there.
Evans, Dave Bliss of Southern Methodist and Jim Harrick of Pepperdine are the three men expected to be interviewed by McGee for the job.
Evans, who met with Pittsburgh officials last week and who reportedly also is being considered for the job at South Carolina, did not deny McGee's interest but said today that he would not talk to anyone at another school about a job until Navy's season is over.