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At height of NCAA season, another way to look at college basketball

Navy basketball coach Ed DeChellis is not a man adept at hiding how he feels.

When I visited a Navy practice in February, he called his players together into a loose huddle a few minutes before the official start of practice. Navy students being Navy students, many of them had been there for a half hour. A few of them had trotted out to the humble practice court 50 minutes early. DeChellis had to ask one of his staff members to chase away a few teenage kids who'd been playing pickup.

On this particular day, DeChellis seemed torn. His Midshipmen had just lost their 17th game in a row, in double overtime to archrival Army. And yet here they were, his mishmash of basketball parts, staring wide-eyed and hanging on each word, ready to be coached.

And so DeChellis pawed at his perpetual five o'clock shadow. He appeared thoughtful, but also conflicted. All those years of coaching hadn't prepared him for this. It was different.

But also what he wanted.

About a year ago, DeChellis began to re-think the path of his life. Then the head coach at Penn State, he'd just taken the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years. Though his best player, Talor Battle, was set to graduate, there was a feeling that the team could, unlike most of those in Penn State history, sustain the momentum. Tim Frazier had been groomed to take over Battle's role as a scoring point guard (which he ended up doing quite ably), and Penn State was starting to develop an identity as a smart, precise defensive team. Surely this was the sort of progress DeChellis hoped for after eight years at his alma mater, which happened to be a basketball backwater.

It was, at least on paper.

"We'd worked so hard to get there, to reach that point," DeChellis said. "And I felt empty."

Too much of his time was spent meeting with athletic department officials, boosters and media. Not enough was spent actually coaching his players.

"I felt like I didn't even know the kids," he said. "I wasn't a basketball coach, a teacher, a mentor. I was window dressing. A facade."

And while DeChellis is very careful not to criticize players at Penn State, he is not shy about saying that what drew him to the Naval Academy was the chance to work with "actual student-athletes." In the Big Ten, basketball programs are expected to generate revenue and create notoriety for the school. Teams hop conferences in the name of competition -- and cash.

"Some of these things going on," DeChellis said, "you couldn't possibly look at and say that they're being done for the kids. It's for the money."

DeChellis was under constant pressure to recruit a higher-caliber player at Penn State, meaning he was also under constant pressure to deal with the mess of handlers and AAU coaches one must woo to lure some of those players. While Penn State is anything but an NBA talent factory, a good percentage of the players there nevertheless harbor dreams of a pro career.

At the academy, DeChellis teaches the pick and roll to kids who go back to their rooms to decide whether they want to become a Navy Seal or maybe work in EOD (explosive ordinance disposal.) To them, basketball is a game. It's one they take seriously, yes, but also still a game.

It was hard not to think about the decision DeChellis made last year while watching Kentucky beat Kansas for the national title Monday night. The Wildcats, you may have read everywhere, are a bunch of pros in training. John Calipari has, since his latter years as the coach at Memphis, built his team around one-and-done players who are forced by NBA rules to stop by a college campus for a year. Calipari is the subject of much ridicule by purists who still believe that all of college athletics is merely some sort of an addendum to the educational process. It isn't -- and hasn't been for a long, long, long time -- at Kentucky, or dozens of other places like it.

If you're OK with that, you probably enjoyed Monday night's game. It wasn't, by any means, a flawless exhibition of basketball. You could tell that Kentucky scraped by at least partially on talent, not on some form of telepathic connection built up over three or four years of playing college ball together. The Wildcats were simply the most talented group of players in the country, expertly molded in the way they needed to be in the time given.

And, really, this champion was as endearing as any we've had in the last few years. Anthony Davis, the humble big man who probably blocked seven shots in the time it took to type this sentence, lacks much of the bravado and sense of entitlement top players have because two years ago he wasn't a top player; he was coveted mostly by Cleveland State. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, meanwhile, has been seen as a top player for a long time and somehow remained humbled; he's also bravely struggled to overcome a stutter for much of his life. Marquis Teague was cast as a basketball cancer in his native Indianapolis -- especially after he opted not to play for the Hoosiers -- and was said to be unable to make the sort of smart decisions that would make the players around him better. But he did just that during Kentucky's run.

If you ascribe to the idea that the highest levels of college athletics are supposed to be more about college than athletics, then you're probably offended by the thought that these kids celebrated late into the night and then, Tuesday morning, probably started considering how they'd prepare for the NBA. Or, more realistically, enacted a plan they'd long had in the works for preparing to go pro. But if you have a realistic view on how top-level athletics work, you're still flabbergasted that the NBA insists its players spend a year in a league where rules prevent the coaches from coaching players more than 20 measly hours a week -- and less when it's not the proper time of year.

Which brings us back to DeChellis. He loves basketball at the highest levels. He talked fondly of all the spoils that come with coaching in the Big Ten: charter flights, nice hotels, raucous crowds in historic arenas, scheming to stop the 6-foot-10 forward who shoots like a guard but is built like a linebacker. It is natural for someone who grew up dreaming of basketball glory to want to reach that level.

DeChellis did, pushing a Penn State program lacking in historical signifance and unwilling to pay assistants competitively into the ballyhooed NCAA Tournament, where "student-athlets" miss days of class to play in giant stadiums festooned with every possible sort of advertising you could think of. 

And then he decided he wanted something different. Not something less, or more. Something different.

DeChellis was still hurt by every loss this year, and there were many of them. The Midshipmen carry the longest losing streak in Division I into next season, at 22 games. One of the team's three wins came against the Altoona branch of Penn State, a Division III school that finished 3-22. DeChellis' best player, J.J. Avila, left the school in the middle of the season.

DeChellis can now recruit players that better fit his system -- the staff got a very late start last year, taking over in late May -- but has to tweak the techniques he's used at other schools. Instead of calling a high school or AAU coach and asking about the team's best players, assistants must ask about the players most able to get into the Naval Academy. Instead of recruiting fertile basketball areas, DeChellis and his assistants must turn their search to areas where kids grow up thinking about the military as a career. In parts of Texas, California and Virginia, students whose parents are in the service are less likely to hesitate because of the four years of duty required after college.

"At Penn State, we had to recruit a lot of kids," Navy assistant Dan Earl said. "So you start with maybe 100. At Penn State, maybe 75 have interest and you narrow it down. But with the academy, you have 50 who might be interested. But only 25 of those even have a chance of getting in. And then only 10 really understand the commitment it's going to take, and you're still in a battle for those kids."

DeChellis must juggle the packed schedules of his students. One day in January, senior guard Ted Connolly showed up a bit late and with his hair wet. The future Navy Seal -- he'll enter Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) school after graduation -- had been swimming in the Severn as part of his training. The Midshipmen bus to most of their games, and then go back to campus right after. Many players have tutoring at 5 a.m.

With the time he spends with them, DeChellis simply tries to school the players in the game he loves. It will teach them lessons that may apply later in life, he hopes, but at the academy there's no reason to talk about sports being the way to forge better people. That pretense, and many others, is gone.

On the day DeChellis stood in the middle of his players -- many of them young and struggling as much with the exacting standards required when making their bed, let alone being in the right spot on defense -- he seemed to be contemplating how to handle another loss. Was it time for fire and brimstone? Time for the tough-guy act? Time to challenge his players' pride?

No. For DeChellis, it was time to teach the game of basketball.

What he said probably sounded no different than the things Calipari told his players in certain practices this season.

But for DeChellis, those moments were the focus of his day. Nothing was more important.

 

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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