For Ed DeChellis’ Navy men’s basketball program, there’s almost nowhere to go this season but up.
In his first season in Annapolis, DeChellis’ Midshipmen labored through a 3-26 season, which included a 0-14 mark in Patriot League play. The former Penn State coach returns several members of that 2011-12 team, including junior guard Isaiah Roberts, sophomore forward Worth Smith, junior guard Brennan Wyatt, junior guard Thurgood Wynn, junior forward James Loupos and sophomore guard Donya Jackson (Calvert Hall). But there will also be an influx of youth at the Academy this winter.
DeChellis has welcomed seven freshmen to Navy this summer: Jerome Alexander, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound wing from Radford, Va.; Tilman Dunbar, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound point guard from Woodbridge, Va.; Phil Guglielmo, a 6-foot-5, 190-pound wing from Springfield, Va.; Will Kelly, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward from Mount Laurel, N.J.; Kendall Knorr, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound guard from Concord, N.C.; Richard Kuzma, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard from Leesburg, Va.; and Ryan Spadaford, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound wing from Rockville Centre, N.Y.
DeChellis spoke with The Sun last week about Navy’s incoming class, the Mids’ returning players, what went wrong last year, and how much better the team should be in 2012-13.
Let’s start with the freshmen. What can you tell us about Jerome Alexander?
Well he’s a high-energy guy. At 6-7, he’s a face-up 4 man who can shoot the ball, drive the ball, and again, he plays with a great deal of energy and emotion. He’s a pretty skilled guy. When he plays out there, he’s all over the place, which is a good thing. He loves to play. He wants to be a Marine, and so he sort of plays like a Marine. He’s a tough kid and he enjoys sticking his nose in there and doing all the dirty work. He’s going to be a very good player for us, I hope.
Tilman Dunbar is next on the list, a semi-local guy from a top program in Paul VI. What do you like about him?
He’s a very outstanding point guard. I was really, really impressed with him this summer – his ball speed, his ability to create for other guys. He’s a very, very unselfish player. He can score the ball. He can drive to the basket. He also has a knack at driving toward the basket, drawing all the help and finding the open guy. And I think the thing that he does really well is make other guys better. He puts our other guys in position to be successful and he makes other guys better. His speed with the ball is just outstanding. He can be a great on-ball defender. He’s a young man who I think has a really, really bright future here.
What do you see in Phil Guglielmo?
Phil has grown. He’s about 6-6 now. He’ll probably, we think, will grow another inch at least. He’s a tremendous perimeter shooter. He’s long and lengthy and shoots over guys. I think that, right now, is his best attribute. We’re working on some other things he needs to be able to do in his development. But he can make shots in bunches. And he’s so tall that he can shoot over guys. So we really think he has a chance to help us this year as well.
Will Kelly, at 6-9, is the biggest recruit you’re bringing in. What do you see in him?
He’s 6-9, maybe 6-8, athletic, long, great communicator on the floor. He blocks shots, plays hard and he rebounds the ball. He’s just going to get better and better with his time here. He’s a kid who’s going to put on additional weight and strength. He has some nice post moves. Again, I think this is a tremendous opportunity for him. He will definitely play this year as well. I see the kid playing, just because he plays so hard that he’s a factor in each game. He’s a young guy that will continue to mature and develop. He’s going to be a special player before it’s all over.
Kendall Knorr is next on the list. What do you like about him?
He’s got a really good feel for the game. Good passer, tremendous shooter from the perimeter. He has sort of like a Chris Mullin shot from back in the day. He’s got a really picture-perfect left-handed jump shot. He’s composed and has a very good feel for the game. He has a very good demeanor about him, very good speed and he always plays under control. At 6-3, he’s a guy with a good body, a good build. He’s a strong kid. He’s a kid, again, that shoots the ball very well. He wills his guys to win and shoots the ball very, very well.
Richard Kuzma is a legacy recruit, correct?
Yes. His father and uncles [went to Navy]. He had a tremendous high school career. I’m really glad to have him in the program. He’s a tremendous perimeter shooter as well. And that’s something we’ve tried to get – guys who can shoot the ball. We were a very poor shooting team last year. We really wanted guys who can shoot the basketball. That’s a skill that [you really need to be] competitive at the college level. Richard can really shoot the basketball. He’s a hard worker and a very bright young guy. We’re very, very happy to have him in the program.
Finally, Ryan Spadaford is the last guy you’re bringing in. What type of player is he?
Ryan’s the kind of guy who’s a tough kid that can play a couple different positions. At 6-4, he can score around the basket. He can shoot, and he kind of does a lot of things well. I don’t have him penciled in for a [specific] position because I think you can move him around. His versatility is a great attribute for us, because he can drive against bigger guys with the basketball, post up smaller guys and shoot the 3. He’s a versatile player. We can move him around and play different spots. His versatility is really important for us.
Of these newcomers, is there one in particular that you absolutely need to make an impact this season?
Well, Tilman is going to play for us. Our point guard position is up in the air. We’ve got two guys who played the position this past year in Brennan Wyatt and Kevin Alter, but we don’t have a lot of great experience. Wyatt got a little more, but Tilman adds some speed to the team and adds some intangibles that right now, we don’t have. I’m hoping he can come along and be a guy who can play quality minutes for us.
You’re going to be young again, but five of seven freshmen from last year are back. Does that indicate that guys are buying in to your program?
Yeah, I think so. I thought the freshmen class this year is a really good class for us. I think we’ve brought in a point guard who’s very fast, athletic and can score. We’ve brought in wings who can shoot the ball. We’ve brought in post guys who can face up and score, and play with their backs to the basket. We tried to bring in a little bit of everything. I think the guys we’ve brought in are skill players who have the opportunity to help us. Other players on the team and in the program have improved. They’ve done a good job working out in the spring and summer. They’ve improved, so I think overall, we’ll be a much-improved program. Hopefully that will show in the win-loss column. I think we’re much better than we were. That’s a positive, but it’s not where we want to be. We want to be Patriot League champs and go to the NCAA tournament. It’s going to take some time for these classes to grow up and develop. This year, we don’t have any seniors – not one senior on the entire team. So for any level of basketball, it’s hard to be where you want to be with no senior leadership on the team. Usually the best teams are junior and senior dominated. We’re just not there yet. We’ll let the classes mature, develop and grow up.
Were you surprised last season was so rough?
After watching our workouts in the fall, I thought we would be challenged. I didn’t think we were very skilled. And I thought if guys didn’t play really well, we were going to have a hard time winning games. I don’t think these guys had great years. Jordan Sugars, our senior, did not have a very good year. Isaiah Roberts, who was our Player of the Year, did not have a very good year. He played well toward the end of the season. But we weren’t a very good passing team, not a very good shooting team. We were one of the worst teams in Division I shooting the basketball. We were [the worst] from 3. We were very, very young. That was a concern for me. We only had Jordan – he was our one senior. Teddy [Connolly] and Carlton [Smith] were sort of walk-on players for us, JV players moved up. We had one senior among the scholarship guys, didn’t have any juniors, and then had sophomores and freshmen. And then we lost some games early – lost a close one to Tulane, lost at Elon on a buzzer beater – that if we made a play here or there, we would have won. But guys weren’t in a position to make a play. We just didn’t have guys who have been in the game and made those plays before. Having a youthful team is very much a concern. I think the skill level is really a concern as we work with the guys in fall practice.
How difficult was it to lose J.J. Avila (academics) midseason?
I thought once we lost J.J., the chemistry of our team changed completely. We had a guy leading us in scoring, rebounds and assists, and you take that guy off the floor. Now that’s one less guy someone has to guard, and it puts [more pressure] on other guys who could potentially score. Did I expect us to win three games? No. But once we got into the season and saw where we were, I thought our guys were going to have to really play well for us to win.
Are there any returners ready to make the leap?
Worth Smith has had a good summer. He played really well in our workouts. Isaiah Roberts played well in our workouts. Those two guys in particular will have to play better. Jared Smoot is a big kid who played last season and played better throughout the summer. Thurgood Wynn from Georgetown Prep has played better. Our two point guards, Brennan Wyatt and Kevin Alter, have played against each other all summer. I think they’ve improved. Overall, a lot of our guys have impressed. I know I can’t wait to see them get back here and get going in the fall. We’re looking forward to it. The staff is looking forward to getting guys back on campus.
I couldn’t help but notice that Donya Jackson (Calvert Hall) wasn’t among the returners you mentioned. What’s the latest on him?
Donya, he’s a great kid. He works hard. I think he’s still in the midst of trying to figure out the military lifestyle. Academically, he’s still working extremely hard on that end. When he takes care of those things, the basketball stuff will come. He has to spend a lot of time on things away from the court, and that time takes his focus from the court. That’s what we’re trying to [relate to him]. Take care of your business in the classroom and take care of your business military-wise, and that allows you to play with a free mind, so you’re not worried about the other things all the time. He’s a great kid, I love him. He always smiles, works hard, and has the potential to be a very, very good player. He just has to take care of the little things.
What are the overall expectations for this season?
Well, we want to be better. We better be better. We should be better. To me, I guess our major concern is leadership. At the Naval Academy, you [think about a leadership void] and go, ‘Wow.’ But we don’t have any seniors. So that’s a concern, as I sit here in August. We tried to develop some leadership with guys over the summer. In terms of leadership on the court, who can guys depend on to get a big basket or get a big defensive stop or a big rebound? In terms of leadership, who can you turn to? That’s kind of the million dollar question going into the season – who’s going to step up and be a leader on the court.