ANNAPOLIS -- As a Navy plebe, Nick Marusich was at a loss on the basketball court. As a sophomore, he showed flashes of promise, but his play could have been fairly described as inconsistent. Now, as a junior, the 6-9, 238-pound center may be ready to make the Midshipmen a competitive force again in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Certainly, if Navy is to escape the mediocrity of the post-David Robinson years, Marusich must become a big man in more than just size. He appeared ready to contribute substantially until a preseason shoulder separation set him back. Accordingly, he struggled through Navy's first six games, but in an 83-81 victory over Hofstra that preceded the current break, he had 11 points and 13 rebounds -- five offensive -- in just 14 minutes.
Since Robinson graduated in 1987, Navy has stumbled to records of 12-16, 6-22 and 5-23. Injuries and departures have contributed to some one-sided defeats, and interest in Navy basketball has waned.
Marusich is no Robinson, but he does evoke memories of another Navy center, 6-10 Cliff Maurer, a 1984 graduate. The Midshipmen were sub-.500 while Maurer awkwardly learned the basics in his first two years, then they broke through to 18-11 and 24-8 records as he became a solid pivotman.
"The difference between college and high school basketball is night and day," Marusich said. "It's a different game. In high school you use your height and athletic ability, but in college everybody's a good athlete and fundamentally sound. You have to pick up new fundamentals, learn the game and get a lot of experience.
"You see it more in places like this or the Ivy League, where you don't have redshirts. A redshirt freshman gets used to the coach, his teammates and basketball itself. I basically wasted a year. When I came into my sophomore year, I was ready to play -- I knew the coach, I knew the system and what I was expected to do. Then it was a matter of experience."
After his sophomore season, he and teammate Sam Cook gained valuable experience as members of a CAA all-star team that played six games in Yugoslavia. Competing against bigger, more experienced players, Marusich averaged 10.8 points and held his own in the physical battles underneath.
"Nick played strong against 6-11 and 7-foot players and was the third-leading scorer," said Navy Coach Pete Herrmann, the tour leader. "That competition should help him. I know he'll play better; he's a key guy for us."
The trip was of special interest to Marusich, because he is of Croatian descent and it was his first visit to the land of his ancestors.
"I saw a few relatives; my uncle was over there in Dubrovnik and took me to see some cousins," Marusich said. "It was a lot different from here. I talked to a lot of people about their problems with the political structure and the economic structure. Most of the people I talked to were doing pretty well, because their families were able to hold some property before communism.
"We played six games against teams from their pro league and in a way they were like pickup games, because we were only together a couple of days before we left and there wasn't enough time to get the bugs worked out.
"But it was a good trip for me and I did real well. I learned a lot of things. The guys I played against were big and strong and it helped me, playing inside and posting up. Playing against guys who are better than you has to help -- and it worked well with our new style of play."
With more depth than in past years, Herrmann has tried to play aggressively at both ends of the court, to offset obvious shortcomings in skill, size and speed. The up-tempo style has worked on occasion, with Navy winning three of seven, but the Midshipmen have been hampered by playing only one home game. They will meet North Carolina-Charlotte Friday in the Blue Angels Classic in Pensacola, Fla., and have two more games before opening league play against East Carolina Jan. 5.
"We're using a lot of fast breaks and a lot of full-court pressure," Marusich said. "We're using a lot of subs and switching positions too. I have to improve my running a lot and get in better shape, so I can do a lot more. I'm trying to develop an outside jumper too. In the past I just used post moves and inside shots."
He made 62 percent of his shots last year and over two seasons has hit 58 percent. Only Robinson (61.3 percent) has shot better over a Navy career.
There is another pertinent statistic for Marusich. Last season he fouled out eight times in 28 games and in addition had five fouls in three CAA games, where the limit was six. In the Hofstra game, he fouled out after only 14 minutes. If he continues to contribute with aggressive play, will he be driven to the bench too often with foul trouble?
"I don't think so," he said. "With pressure we'll get beat sometimes and the big man will be the only man back. I'm learning about those situations. Right now I'm fouling too much, but with luck I'll get it to a tolerable level."
A Californian, he arrived here weighing 245 pounds. By the end of plebe summer, he was down to 210. The 28 pounds he has added since are largely muscle, the result of diligent weightlifting to strengthen his upper body.
"I've been on a new lifting program, working a lot on speed and power," he said. "It's helped a lot, because you need both of those in basketball. But more than anything, it's maturity that counts. Playing against guys 22 or 23, when you're 18, you're at a physical disadvantage. Hopefully, that won't be the case any more."