Following a 2015-16 season that resulted in its highest win total in seven years, the Navy men's basketball team had every reason to be confident entering the current campaign. However, the Midshipmen had to regroup following a 5-10 start that was capped by a 71-53 home loss to Boston University Jan. 5.
But a seven-game winning streak has resurrected Navy's season. In January, head coach Ed DeChellis' squad rebounded from an 0-3 Patriot League start to rise to second place in the 10-team conference. On Feb. 2, the Midshipmen can extend their successful run and solidify their league standing with a win at Boston University (12-10, 7-3 Patriot League), the same team that handed Navy its most recent loss. The Midshipmen haven't won eight straight games since they earned 13 consecutive victories during the 1999-2000 season.
The most unusual win during the streak was a 96-80 overtime defeat of host Army West Point Jan. 21. Navy held a 10-point lead with 42 seconds remaining in regulation, but the Cadets rallied to send the game into an extra session. The Midshipmen outscored Army, 21-5, during the overtime period to wrap up a critical victory.
"All of the wins are so important, because we're trying to get seeded [for the conference tournament]," DeChellis said. "But the way that we won that game was significant. We had eight guys that were sick. We got a lead, then played horribly during that last minute. But the kids came back and put the hammer down. [Army] had all the juice, but we just showed our fiber."
Navy will take a 12-10 overall mark and 7-3 Patriot League record into the rematch with the Boston University Terriers. The Midshipmen and Terriers are tied for second place and trail league-leading Bucknell by two games. Six of Navy's seven wins during the streak have been by double-digit margins, including a 60-47 rout of defending Patriot League champion Holy Cross during their most recent outing Jan. 28.
"We're shooting the ball better and making our free throws," said DeChellis, who is in his sixth season at Navy. "And our point guard play has improved tremendously in the last seven games."
The Midshipmen have emerged as a legitimate contender for the Patriot League title despite having only one double-figure scorer. Junior guard Shawn Anderson, the Midshipmen's leading scorer on last year's 19-13 team, tops the point chart again this season with a 12.4 average. But a defensive effort that has limited opponents to 64 points per game has been a key factor in Navy's turnaround. The Midshipmen lead the league in defensive rebounds and rebounding margin and are second in scoring defense.
"Defense is my pillar, and the kids understand that," DeChellis said. "We've gone to more of a matchup zone, and we're more aggressive on the ball. Since we don't have a shot blocker inside, we're trying to keep the ball from getting in the paint."
Anderson, a junior guard, is Navy's most impactful player. In addition to his team-leading scoring average, the native of New Castle, Pa., has averaged 5.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists an outing. Anderson leads a backcourt that has also received significant contributions from sophomore point guard Hasan Abdullah (8.7 points, 3.1 assists, 2.0 steals per game) and junior guard Bryce Dulin (8.6 points, 3.7 rebounds).
"Shawn drives the ball and pitches it out to create shots for other guys," DeChellis said. "He has also developed great leadership qualities."
A pair of 6-foot-7 forwards, junior Tom Lacey and sophomore George Kiernan, are the anchors of Navy's frontcourt. Lacey, one of two returning starters from last year's squad, has averaged 8.1 points and a team-high 8.0 rebounds. Kiernan, who logged five minutes of playing time during his freshman season, is the squad's second-leading scorer (8.9 points) despite coming off the bench during each of his 20 appearances.
"Tom is a stable force for us defensively," DeChellis said. "He's a great communicator who can put guys in the right places, and he scores a lot on great second-effort plays. George played well when he got the chance, and he's given us a different dimension offensively."
The Midshipmen will face all of their closest competitors during the final eight games of the regular season. Following the Boston test, Navy will end its last long road trip with a meeting at Colgate Feb. 4. The Midshipmen will then play four of their next five games at home, where they are 8-3 this year, before ending the regular season with a meeting at Bucknell Feb. 25.
"Boston University just beat us up, and we played our worst game of the season," said DeChellis of Navy's earlier 18-point loss to the Terriers, in which the Midshipmen committed a season-high 27 turnovers. "They have guys who are big and athletic and can shoot the ball. It'll be a very interesting game."