Following just the second 0-3 start in the program's 93-season history, the Navy men's basketball team was left with a series of troubling questions. How would the Midshipmen score enough points to win consistently? Who would become the team leader? Was this the beginning of the end of their six-season run at, or near, the top of the Patriot League?
It was a frightening time for a team that had won 59 games and made two NCAA tournament appearances in the previous three seasons. It also was time for a change in attitude.
"After Thanksgiving break [and season-opening losses to Rice, Wake Forest and Richmond], we were all kind of able to step back and look at things that we did wrong, and talked a lot about it as a team," said center Sitapha Savane. "When we came back for the Air Force game, I and the rest of the guys were ready to step it up."
Navy scored a season-high 93 points against the Falcons, and has remained on a tear, winning nine of 10 games and gaining the confidence that had been lacking earlier this season. For Coach Don DeVoe, tonight's Patriot League season opener at Bucknell couldn't have come at a better time.
"It just seems to me that the team is really starting to come together," said DeVoe. "We're just a hustling basketball team right now, and I think it's well timed for us that we're starting conference play."
The 6-foot-8 Savane has emerged as one of the league's best players, averaging team highs of 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.1 blocks--the latter tying him for third in the country. He had a string of four consecutive 20-point games last month, including a 26-point, 13-rebound effort against Southern Methodist.
Against Liberty last week, he grabbed 14 rebounds, helping Navy shatter a single-game school record with 71 rebounds, including 37 on the offensive end. On a team with only two players averaging more than seven points per game--forward Chris Williams is averaging 15.8--one of the team's primary offensive tactics has become swarming for offensive rebounds. The Midshipmen are averaging 17 offensive rebounds per game, 44 overall.
"It's a whole lot easier getting the offensive rebound and putting up a layup than it is hitting a long jumper," said Savane, who has emerged as a vocal team leader. "We figured that to make it easier on ourselves, we just had to crash the offensive [backboards] like madmen, and that's been working pretty well of late."
Still, DeVoe has plenty of concerns about a team on which two players account for about 44 percent of the scoring. As opposing teams increasingly choose to double- and triple-team Savane, DeVoe is looking for other scorers.
"We're not a very good scoring team," said DeVoe, whose team is averaging 73.8 points per game. "If Savane is double-teamed, it really puts a lot of pressure on Chris Williams as well as everyone else. It puts them in a position where we have to find out what we can do."
Guard John Williams, who has been playing more lately because of his strong defensive work, has shown potential on offense, but not consistency. After scoring 17 points in the season opener against Rice, the Annapolis native went scoreless against Wake Forest. After scoring 20 against Gettysburg on Dec. 28, he followed with four points against Belmont on Dec. 30.
Defense and rebounding, however, have helped make up for the offensive shortcomings. Navy has held six of its past 11 opponents to less than 38 percent shooting, and has forced at least 20 turnovers six times during that span.
Still, many of those performances came against overmatched opponents such as Coast Guard, Denver and Gettysburg. A better test will occur during the next 11 days, when Navy plays consecutive road games against Bucknell, Lafayette and Holy Cross.
"We're playing the [Patriot League's] three best teams away, right?" DeVoe said. "We'll have a good indication in the next week-and-a-half about where we're going to be in the league."