Billy Lange will have no shortage of young talent to work with this season.
The Navy men's basketball coach last week introduced the Mids' seven-man freshmen class.
The seven new Midshipmen, who have already begun their plebe summer, are: J.J. Avila, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward from McAllen, Texas; Jacob Liebert, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard from Alamo, Calif.; James Loupos, a 6-foot-6, 185-pound forward from Skillman, N.J.; Isaiah Roberts, a 6-foot-2, 165-pound guard from Pennsauken, N.J.; Jared Roberts, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound guard from Pennsauken, N.J.; Brennan Wyatt, a 5-foot-9, 154-pound point guard; and Thurgood Wynn, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound guard from Bethesda.
Avila averaged 21.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.6 steals as a senior and was ranked the No. 34 player in Texas by TexasHoops.com. Liebert, who completed a prep year at New Hampton Prep (N.H.), is the son of former Navy player Carl Liebert, who played on the Mids' NCAA tournament teams with David Robinson. Loupas was a three-time captain who averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds as a senior. The Roberts twins led Woodbury High to state championships in basketball, football and track. Scout.com analyst Dave Telep called Wyatt "one of the best floor leaders in North Carolina, a pass-first point guard and a dangerous penetrator." Wynn, an All-Interstate Athletic Conference selection, formed a potent backcourt for Georgetown Prep with Markel Starks, a Hoyas recruit.
Yeah, I think we had some things last year that were beyond the control of anybody that led to some attrition. Luckily for us, my assistants did a great job of just constantly being involved with great players who were invested in coming here. Even when we thought we'd lose guys, and we'd never want them to leave, but we followed up real quickly and were prepared for that. It's a little similar to last year in that we're bringing back a nucleus of guys, but I think this group has an opportunity to play right away. But we still have great leadership in the upper class. We still have a little bit of experience they'll provide.
One of the most important things for us is, just over the last couple of years, we've lost guys like Greg Sprink who was a prolific scorer and had a great career here, Kaleo Kina who was a great player for us, Adam Teague who was a great shooter, Clif Colbert and then Chris Harris. So we had a lot of guys for a good three-season period that provided a lot of minutes on the perimeter. We've been very perimeter-focused, so it was very important for us to get a little bit bigger last summer, regardless of last year's group. We had a need to add some perimeter players, and I feel like we really did that. Towards the end of the year, when we looked down the line, he thought we needed to get some frontcourt players to provide us some immediate help. We really feel like we did that, especially getting J.J. Avila.
Avila's a guy who put up big numbers in Texas and had some other Division I options. What are your thoughts on him?
Well, he's one of the best passers that we've ever had here. He's just unique in terms of a big man we've had, but his passing ability is part of his game [that stands out]. We're really excited about him. He's a good rebounder, a phenomenal outlet passer, a physical kid who just has a high IQ for the game. He weighed in at about 242 at the start of summer. He's typically not a guy we've been able to get. We've brought in some quality guys like Mark Veazey and Alex Newsome, but J.J., from a physical standpoint, is just ready-made for college. It's just a matter of him getting used to the intensity of Division I basketball.
Wynn is an in-state guy who excelled against some tough competition. Is he an instant impact guy?
Yeah, we saw Thurgood as a senior, and man, he just continues to get better and better. We thought we've had great success developing a certain kind of player, and he was that kind of type. But I think he's more developed at this stage than I thought he would be when he originally committed. He's gotten a lot better since last year.
Is he sort of a combo guard?
He's more of a combo wing. Our 2s and 3s would be sort of interchangeable. They're the same kind of player. When I think of combo guard, I think of someone who can fill in in a pinch and play the point guard. That wouldn't be how I would project Thurgood. That's just not where we project him. He's more like a 2-guard or a wing for us.
You're a Jersey guy and have landed three recruits from the state in this class. Talk about Loupos and the Roberts twins and how your ties to the state helped you with them.
James was a guy we targeted midway through his junior year. He's a player we personally spent a lot of time on, evaluating him in high school and on his summer team. The more we got to know about him and his leadership skills in the basketball program and in the school community, he was a must get for us. Him being from New Jersey, it definitely helped us. He's from central Jersey, so we've got the Sixers, he's an Eagles fan and there was a lot to connect with him. But we think really highly of James. He was a guy that was really sought after and he was a great recruit for us.
With Jared and Isaiah Roberts, those two guys grew up playing where I'm from. They're just tremendous athletes and great competitors. These are guys that own state championships in basketball, track and football. They're phenomenal athletes and phenomenal competitors. They have an old man's IQ for the game of basketball.
How important were your ties to the state in landing those three guys?
It's great. In the end, honestly, the most important thing is to get great players and great guys. But I spent 20-plus years in that area. We're in a situation at Navy where you can't rely on any one area, but being able to get kids from a place where there are high school and AAU coaches that I trust, and I know what they've been through, it was important. When we're recruiting a new kid, we want them to be a good fit at the institution as much as we do in the program. We look at guys that can be great officers and great players. We have to be comfortable with their character more than where they're from. But I think it's a win-win for everyone. Honestly, that's why I don't sweat it when a guy wants to leave here. Shoot, we lost Trey Stanton here a couple years ago. He was probably the best recruit we've brought in. He transferred home [to Rice], goes to Conference USA and has had a couple tremendous seasons there. But not everyone is cut out for the Naval Academy.
With the Roberts twins, we're just making sure we're bringing in quality guys all the time. We don't get to see these kids all that much with NCAA rules. There are only so many times you can evaluate them and we can only have them on campus so many times. So you want guys who are all about our institution and what it stands for. You really want to know a kid before you bring him here. A guy like Thurgood in our backyard, the Jersey kids, to get those type of references, it's huge for us.
Is Wyatt the heir apparent to O.J. Avworo at point guard?
I think they'll play together. His shooting is so fantastic that those guys will play together. Brennan, to me, he's just good. I don't know what else to say. His shooting, his passing, his competitiveness, his poise in late-game situations – all of those things to me are really important. I'm not just going say that this guy starts at the point or backs up O.J. or is the heir apparent. Our plan right now is for those guys to play minutes together.
Liebert's a legacy recruit that you would expect to be in for the long haul. What kind of player is he?
The funny thing is Jacob started coming to camps as a freshman in high school, so we've seen his development the whole time. The kid has gotten so much better. He's changed his body and developed an outside game. So with Jacob, it's great to have a legacy recruit, but we're holding him to a high standard here. We think he can help us. When that is, we don't know. But he's continuing to progress and we think he's a guy that's going to help this team in many ways.
You lose Chris Harris, but before that you lost Kina and before that was Sprink. You always seem to find another go-to guy and next year you have four starters back. Who do you see making up some of that lost production?
I think again, the common thought by just looking at our situation and basing it off who has been successful in scoring, then you'd have to say Jordan Sugars. I'm telling you as the coach that I'm hoping it doesn't get to [having just one main scorer]. That was never the plan. I'm not upset that we have guys you could count on to make big shots. But I really want to see our team play develop into what I've always preached, and kind of be a team that has maybe three or four guys that can do that. I think Mark Veazey can definitely help and contribute in a big way. O.J. should've been an all-conference player last year, even if he didn't get the votes. He led our league in assists and was double figures in scoring. If you looking at it based on last season and the type of player that's been a scorer, you'd have to say it's going to be Sugars. But our emphasis since the season's end was that we've got to have unbelievable balance, unbelievable team players and unbelievable ball sharing. Somebody's going to be the leading scorer, but we'd like to see much more balance across the board.
Which freshman do you see making an immediate impact?
Wyatt, Loupas and J.J. were pretty big scorers in high school. But I watched Isaiah Roberts score 30 points in a high school game. They all have the ability to do that. But all of our guys will contribute more in our offense that's all about sharing the wealth. In no way am I implying that other teams were selfish. They weren't. We still had teams that shared the ball. But we just want all our guys to be confident to do their thing within a team framework.
Are you pleased with where the program is at this point?
Yeah, I feel great. I look at last season, and nobody on our team or staff was really happy [with the final record], but we were dealt a lot of adversity. With one week left in the regular season we were tied for first place. Then we just had a bad seven days, and in the Patriot League, that can go a long way. So I feel great. We're the second winningest team in our league the last two years. We want to win the regular season, we want to win our conference tournament and we want to go to the NCAA tournament. So I feel really good with where we're at.
2006 Baltimore Sun photo of Billy Lange