It was less than four weeks ago that the Navy basketball team found itself with a 3-12 record, possessing little hope for the remainder of the season. Its top two big men were injured and a third became disenchanted and left the team.

Following an 80-68 loss to George Mason, Navy Coach Pete Herrmann decided to make some philosophical changes. The Midshipmen lost their next game to Maryland-Baltimore County, but went on to put together an eight-game winning streak they will put on the line Saturday in a key Colonial Athletic Association game against visiting American University (12-12).

The major change was scrapping the zone defense that had worked so well with 7-foot-1 all-America David Robinson anchoring the middle, for an aggressive man-to-man. It is not coincidental that the change opened up more playing time for three St. John's High School graduates whose contributions suddenly went from minimal to highly significant.

"I was beginning to think that we might be done a little early in March," said junior forward Bobby Jones. "I went to the coaches and asked them to let us play more man-to-man. Coach Herrmann said the {zone} system had worked well for a long time, and it had. Talking with Erik {Harris} and Eddie {Reddick} had reminded me a lot of the old man-to-man we played at St. John's, and once we went to it here, it has made us more aggressive and has been the biggest difference for us."

Reddick, a 6-6, 215-pound freshman forward, became a starter 17 games ago due more to injuries to center Byron Hopkins, forward Derric Turner and the departure of 6-9 Darren Morningstar. Reddick has since become the team's leading rebounder with seven per game.

Jones is a defensive specialist whose playing time has grown steadily as he's continued to contribute big plays. In a recent 63-61 victory over William and Mary, he scored six points in overtime and made a decisive 10-footer with one second left. Last year, he twice made the assists to Robinson for baskets that became last-second game winners.

Harris, a 6-1 freshman point guard, is third on the team in assists this season with 52.

Herrmann sees a connection with the St. John's alumni, his team's refusal to give up on the rest of the season when things looked bleak and the current winning streak.

"The kids from St. John's have been winners," said Herrmann. "They may not be the most talented kids or all-Americas, but they have heart and are competitors. They have always played against good competition and they handled things well when we weren't going good."

Navy's early problems included prolonged periods of listlessness, particularly at the start of games.

"Switching to man-to-man has really helped us out because we cause more turnovers and get into the game right away," said Harris. "It has also raised our level of offense. When we were playing zone, once we got going, it seemed like we were already down by 10 points."

Reddick said playing with two other former students of veteran St. John's Coach Joe Gallagher has helped him adjust to college ball.

"Most of what we learned from Coach Gallagher and from playing with each other has made it easier for us," said Reddick. "I know how Bobby likes to play and it makes me more aware of things."

Herrmann stresses the whole season has been an adjustment for Navy basketball.

"It is no longer the Robinson era," he said. "That was fun and a great era, but we have a great group here now. Things changed for us when everyone learned to accept their roles."

The key player who altered his game was senior shooting guard Cliff Rees. Averaging a team-best 14.3 points, Rees has sacrificed higher scoring of late and has become the team assists leader, averaging five per game.

"We just had to get out of looking for Dave," said Jones of playing without Robinson, a first-round draft choice of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. "We are still not shooting real well {45 percent}, but we are not letting other teams shoot well, either {42 percent}. That's how we did it at St. John's. The past few weeks have been just like those old times back in high school."