It was cold in Annapolis on the first Friday in January, the temperatures hovering around freezing, when the members of the Naval Academy basketball team made their way across the Yard — Navy’s campus — to Alumni Hall for practice.
No one was in a very good mood. The previous night, the Midshipmen had been throttled, 71-53, by Boston University on their home court. A season that had started with so much promise was suddenly spinning out of control. The Mids were a disappointing 5-10 but, more important, they had started Patriot League play 0-3.
“They just blew us out,” Coach Ed DeChellis said this past Friday, five weeks later. “We had played well enough to win but hadn’t won in our first two games. We came back from Holy Cross [after losing at the buzzer] and were just completely flat.”
DeChellis is in his sixth season at Navy, so he is familiar with the life his players lead and how different it is from almost all other Division I athletes. That’s why he doesn’t often jump them. Now though, something had to be done.
“There’s a difference between criticizing and coaching,” he said. “I didn’t think our guys were understanding the difference. They were taking things personally. If someone misses a box-out or doesn’t find someone on defense, they need to be told, sometimes firmly if it’s a repeated mistake. But that’s coaching. It’s what I’m paid to do.”
And so, before practice that afternoon, DeChellis firmly explained that to his players. They needed to be tougher, he told them. They needed to accept being coached, not sulk about it. They needed, quite simply, to get better.
“You needed thick skin to sit in that meeting,” said guard Shawn Anderson, the Mids’ leading scorer and emotional leader. “It was a moment to look in the mirror, for each of us to look at ourselves and understand we needed to handle things better. That day, we needed to handle being called out. It was a little bit of a shocker, I think, but it was clearly the right thing to be done.”
Forward Tom Lacey, a junior like Anderson, said almost the same thing.
“There was friction and there was frustration,” he said. “The word Coach D kept using was ‘fiber.’ Did we have the fiber to deal with adversity? We had shown it was there in some of our pre-conference games. He was making the point we had to do it consistently — and we hadn’t.”
Since that day, the Midshipmen (15-11, 10-4) have won 10 of 11 games, including Saturday night’s 68-60 victory against Lafayette.
They have gone from dead last in the Patriot League to a tie for second place, putting them in position to avoid a first-round game in the conference tournament for the first time since DeChellis arrived in the spring of 2011.
“The first goal is to finish in the top six so our first game is in the quarterfinals,” DeChellis said Friday. “We go one step at a time around here. It’s been a while.”
A long while. Navy won the Patriot tournament title three times in five years under Don DeVoe (1994, 1997, 1998) but had taken a deep dive since losing the conference championship game to Holy Cross in 2001. DeChellis knew it was going to take a while to turn things around when he surprised the college basketball world by leaving Penn State, his alma mater, after taking the Nittany Lions to the NCAA tournament in 2011.
“I knew it would take time, but I don’t think I knew just how difficult it would be,” he said, able to smile now at the memory. “There are no quick fixes at an academy. You can’t bring in graduate transfers or, for that matter, any transfers. You can’t go out and get junior college players. And the prep school program had gone away. We needed to start over.”
Square one was not an unfamiliar place for DeChellis. He had gone 7-20 in his first season at East Tennessee State and 9-19 to start his tenure at Penn State. Still, 3-26 was a shock to his system, as was 20 wins — total — in his first three seasons at Navy. Since then, the improvement has been gradual: 13-19, followed by 19-14 last season.
The jump to 19 wins, including 9-9 in the Patriot League, was sullied by a stagger to the finish line after a fast start. The Mids finished in a four-way tie for fourth place and won their first-round tournament game against Lafayette but then were edged by Lehigh.
“We struggled down the stretch, and I couldn’t understand why,” DeChellis said. “We had guys with dings, but every team does in February. I went back and looked at every tape, and we looked tired. I had to remind myself what life is like for these guys.”
And so DeChellis has changed things up this winter as the end of the regular season approaches. Practices are shorter. When the team needs to look at tape, it’s done at lunchtime, so the afternoon sessions are over earlier. This past Thursday, after hanging on to beat Loyola on Wednesday night, the Mids did yoga and a walk-through. No running, no contact.
Two weeks after the “coaching vs. criticism” meeting, the team traveled to Army. The MVP of that trip was team doctor Ed McDevitt. A virus had run through the team. Eight players, plus DeChellis, needed IVs on the bus trip up and that night at the hotel.
Lacey remembers being awakened the morning of the trip at 6 o’clock, by a plebe. “I was lying on the floor of the bathroom,” he said. “I think I just decided I’d save a lot of time if I stayed there.”
“Worst bus trip of my life,” DeChellis said. “I remember Doc McDevitt giving me a second IV bag and me saying, ‘I’m going to need to feel a lot better just so I can die.’ It was really awful.”
The next day, the team’s fiber showed. The Mids blew a lead late, then won in overtime, 96-80.
“That game showed who we are and who we can be,” said Anderson, another of the IV-8. “We just need to keep being that team.”
After Saturday, there are four regular season games left, including trips to first-place Bucknell and the preseason league favorite, Lehigh. Then comes the conference tournament which, naturally, coincides with midterm exams.
“Not a problem,” Lacey said with a grin. “School will take care of itself. We’ll be ready to go. We have to be ready to go.”
They’ve come a long way in five weeks.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.