The seed was insulting. Seventh in its region. That meant the tournament selection committee rated at least 24 teams higher than Navy. How could that be? You go 27-4, you win 13 in a row, all the teams that beat you are in the tournament, too, and three of them -- St. John's, Syracuse, Georgia Tech -- are in the top 10. And you're seeded seventh in your region?
Then they add injury to insult. The site of the subregional is Syracuse, at the Carrier Dome. And guess who's in the draw: Syracuse. How could that be? It's tough enough having to play Syracuse on a neutral court, but now, in the NCAAs, you have to play Syracuse at Syracuse. That's fair?
Navy didn't think so. Military decorum being what it is, the players chose mild words of rebuke for the seed and the site. "At first we were upset," said David Robinson. "We were disappointed," admitted Vernon Butler. Coaches, on the other hand, are unencumbered by such a behavioral guideline. "They dumped on us again," steamed Paul Evans.
We know by now that Navy went from dumpee to dumper, unloading Tulsa first, then Syracuse with shocking ease, pulling steadily away in the beginning minutes of the second half like a cabin cruiser from a rowboat. The Orange were bewildered by Navy's aggressiveness, passive in contrast. Other than Pearl Washington, they seemed unfocused. "When they saw they couldn't stop us offensively, they started to give up," said Butler, who scored 23 points.
Count me as one of those who gave Navy -- this same Navy that lost at Syracuse by 22 points in December -- zero chance of beating Syracuse there. Color me wrong. "We were an inconsistent team, and we weren't set," Butler said, explaining the early-season losses to Syracuse, St. John's and Georgia Tech. "We just went out to play those games, not to win them." Navy would play one good half, then come back with a bad one. According to Butler and Robinson, the Midshipmen didn't find a consistency of performance until as recently as their conference tournament. "But we're peaking now, you can feel it building," Butler said enthusiastically. And this from the prodigious Robinson, who had 35 points against Syracuse to add to his 30 against Tulsa: "We respond well when the lights are on us."
The lights are certainly on now. Strobes. Full power. Navy has emerged from the pit of the subregional into the crystal showcase of The Sweet 16. Next up is Cleveland State. Come on, if Navy-Cleveland State isn't "Cinderella Meets Sleeper Beauty," what is? Should Navy win, it likely would play Duke in the final of the East regional, one of the few big-time college basketball games in which every starter could spell his major. As someone who was in college in the late 1960s and was not, shall we say, enthralled with the service academies, it is not without a certain appreciation for life's little ironies that I now find myself enamored of Navy.
But look at them, 3s in a world of 5s. Of their starters, only Butler could be said to have been a Division I prospect in high school. As great as Robinson is, who saw it then? Doug Wojcik, Kylor Whitaker, Carl Liebert, Cliff Rees, did Dean or Lefty or Looie or John come to schmooze? Navy probably has less pure athletic ability per capita than any team still playing -- not to mention 20 or 30 others sitting down. Aren't they way past their bedtime?
"We're role players, except maybe for David," Butler said, almost boasting. It is this recognition of limits that has helped Evans mold a team that has won 79 of 97 the last three seasons. "The kids are smarter, they're more willing to have roles, more willing to learn what their limitations are and to work within them," Evans said appreciatively. "Sometimes better players want to do more than they're capable of doing, or want to be a bigger part of it than you want them to be."
How far can Navy extend this R&R of Roles and Robinson? The players say all the way to the final, but what else would you expect players to say? Evans said his team is "real good when they're all playing well," but cautioned, "We're not a team that can be half there and beat people. We have to be 90 percent to beat anybody." Can Navy win it all? Shivering, Evans said, "It would have to be like Villanova."
And what of Evans, whose name is mentioned for every coaching job that isn't nailed shut? Will he leave Navy? He says he doesn't know. "I was on my way to Pittsburgh to talk about the job there when I saw the seed and that they'd stuck us in Syracuse, and I said, 'Hey, I'm taking this job instantly.' Now I'm flying home this morning after beating Syracuse on their floor with these kids who are great kids, academic kids, and I'm thinking maybe I don't want to leave now." Smiling rather embarrassedly, he continued, "I really like it here. I'm going to have a hell of a team next year. You couldn't pick a better location to live. If this was a normal Division I school, you'd be able to compete here, any level you wanted," and his voice trailed off.
But it's not a normal Division I school. It's a service academy. The 5s don't come, and the 3s understand what that means to a coach. Butler said: "If it was me, the dream would be to do it in a power school. This is his chance." And this from the intriguing Robinson, who himself chose to stay at Navy rather than transfer and pursue a degree in pro basketball: "I'd tell him, 'If I were you, I'd probably go. There's only so far you can go with a team like this; the recruiting is so tough.' In the best interests of his career, I'd have to tell him to go." Coo-coo-ca-choo, Mr. Robinson.