Ed DeChellis is a 26-year veteran as a college basketball head coach, the last 11 at Navy, where he seems to have found the secret to keeping the Midshipmen at a better-than-even keel.
The Mids are 8-4 this year just coming out of the holiday hiatus with a 70-56 Patriot League win at Holy Cross. They’re 23-7 the last year and a half, a serious Patriot League contender as league play gets going. The veteran coach, at his third port of call after mostly successful stints at Penn State and East Tennessee State, has learned one immutable fact about keeping things shipshape at the Academy.
And that is that age has its benefits, not just being a coach with experience but in midshipbuilding a program around veterans.
“I think you need older guys,” DeChellis said. “It’s good for basketball, but also at the Academy, life is easier for the older guys. Freshmen and sophomores have a hard time. There’s a lot being thrown at them and it’s all new to them. The older guys are natural leaders the way things work here.”
With four seniors and nine juniors on deck in his program, DeChellis has the proper mix and the Mids proved it with thoe seven pre-Christmas wins, the most before the start of Patriot play since nine victories in the 2017-18 preconference season.
Among the teams Navy has sunk are then-No. 25 Virginia to open the season in eye-popping fashion, and then dispatching a nine-win (to date) Furman squad. The losses have been to Virginia Tech, Louisville, surging George Mason and then a disappointing showing against nine-win Towson coming out of exam week.
“I think we can be so much better,” Navy’s senior Swiss Army knife Greg Summers said. “Honestly, Coach D keeps saying we want to be our best at the end of the year. We’ve got guys coming back [from injuries] and we look forward to seeing everyone 100 percent healthy.”
The 6-foot-4 Summers is playing a lot of point guard for the team, but he also leads the Mids in rebounding with 5.8 boards per game. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer this year behind fellow senior John Carter Jr., who tweaked his ankle against Towson but returned for the conference opener against Holy Cross.
Carter (13.4 points per game) and Summers (10.4) lead a remarkably balanced attack. Seven players average 5.8 points or better. All of them are seniors or juniors. Of the nine players in the regular rotation, eight are upperclassmen.
Junior guard Patrick Dorsey, who averaged 22 minutes last season, hasn’t played yet because of an ankle injury, and sophomore guard Austin Inge, who got 19 minutes a contest, is just coming back from turf toe. Dealing with adversity is part of the deal at a service academy. It’s how you become an experienced veteran on the court and in the institutional hierarchy.
Talk to the Navy players and you keep hearing a lot of the same words — maturity, accountability, experience. Watch them play and you see those words in action. A school that produces leaders as its mission has a basketball team full of them.
“The leadership from juniors and seniors has been huge,” said senior captain Richard Njoku, who blossomed last year. “It’s a strong core when you return so many guys from past years’ teams. [Graduated point guard Cam Davis] brought so much leadership and handed it down to us and we’ve just continued to roll on. The past two years have been really good for us.”
All-Patriot and leading scorer Davis led Navy to a 15-3 mark last year but COVID contact-tracing took him out the lineup in the Patriot League tournament and Loyola knocked off the top-seeded Mids, who had looked primed for a run.
“It feels like there’s a lot of unfinished business with the way the COVID monster ended our season,” said Njoku, who is battling through a bout with plantar fasciitis himself. “It’s tough. We felt we had a lot left. We’re just doing our best to get back to that spot again.”
Navy will find out where it stands quickly in the New Year. Patriot League preseason favorite Boston University is in Annapolis Jan. 4 for a 7 p.m. tilt. The Midshipmen were third in the preseason poll behind BU and Colgate, which comes to town Jan. 13.
As one might expect at a military academy, defense is top priority and a primary reason Navy has competed at such a high level recently. The Mids are allowing just 58.7 points per game and 39.8 percent shooting.
“Defend, rebound, take care of the ball, that’s our mantra,” DeChellis said. “We’ve got older guys that understand you’re not going to always score like you want to. Defend, defend, defend. Keep the ball in front of us and make them score over us.”
DeChellis keeps the team apprised of how they rank statistically, getting the buy-in from his players and proving how those numbers — particularly on defense — translate to wins.
“They enjoy playing with each other and for each other and they understand you have to defend and rebound and box out, those type of things,” he said. “It’s amazing how the ball will find you and get in the basket if you have this kind of activity on the defensive end and on the glass.”
The players have heard the message and taken it to heart.
“We preach every single game about defensive rebounding and just playing great defense,” said Njoku, a Washington, D.C., product. “Defense wins championships, Coach D says that all the time and we try to embody that every time we get on the court, even in practice.”
Since DeChellis arrived, Navy has won the rebounding battle in 185 of 310 games it’s played.
Defense was the key during a five-game winning streak in November, Navy holding opponents to just 47 points per night during that span. Radford had just eight points in the first half of a 47-33 loss to Navy. Mount St. Mary’s and Division III Washington both totaled just 40 points in back-to-back games against the Midshipmen.
Summers said the team has bought into the accountability that DeChellis emphasizes — doing those little things on the court and off, going to class, paying attention to details and staying clear of trouble. He referred to conversations he’s had with fellow seniors Njoku, Carter and Christian Silva about the team’s culture.
“My brothers Rich, John and Christian, we’ve had multiple conversations about what this team needs to be successful and its maturity,” Summers said. “We’ve really bought into it. It started last year, and we’ve carried it over to this year.”
The Navy seniors won 12 games as freshmen, then 14 before the COVID-shortened 15-3 season last year. They rank among the conference’s leaders in league wins the last six years, drawing in more talent and building around veterans. Last season, Navy was 12-1 in the Patriot League and the program seemed to turn the corner.
Navy’s seniors don’t get a reprieve because of the pandemic. They play their four seasons and literally move on to bigger and better things. Njoku will take assignment on a Navy ship next year as a Surface Warfare specialist. Carter, Silva and Summers will all enter the Marine Corps in ground operations.
Ocoee, Fla., native Summers said following the season and until they leave, the seniors want to hang around the team and continue to build the culture they helped establish. Sounds about right. It’s certainly not the first time these guys have put the greater good first.
All statistics are entering Navy’s game against Boston University Jan. 4.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Navy Athletics