Navy's men were favored to regain the Patriot League basketball championship this season, but their chances could diminish notably tonight.
Suddenly, the Midshipmen are facing a must-win situation when they play host to league-leading Holy Cross at 7 p.m. in the game that will probably determine their seeding for the league's postseason tournament. (The game is scheduled for the Patriot League TV network and can be seen in selected areas locally on Comcast Channel 8.)
The abrupt dilemma is the result of Navy's 87-78 defeat Sunday at defending champion Lafayette. It was the team's second loss in the league, and because the other defeat was at Holy Cross (8-1 Patriot record), a win will give the Crusaders the No. 1 seed by virtue of their two victories over the Midshipmen.
That is not exactly what the Midshipmen had in mind when they were awarded the tournament's first two rounds at Alumni Hall next month. The title game goes to the home court of the highest remaining seed, and the top seed has to win only one game to get there in a seven-team league.
"There's never a more important game than the next one," said Navy coach Don DeVoe. "And that's even more true now since the next one is Holy Cross. If we are not able to get the job done, they've clinched the top seed. We only have one opportunity."
Navy (6-2 in the league) got into this quandary by committing 33 turnovers, sending Lafayette to the foul line 59 times and failing to control Brian Burke, who returned from a punctured lung to hit his first three-pointer and go on to score 23 points for Lafayette.
"We had all the ingredients up there for a good loss," said Navy's leading scorer, Chris Williams. "The trend lately has been for games to be free-throw contests, and you can send a team to the line and stop the clock that many times. That's giving them points. Maybe we need to tone our aggressiveness down a little on defense."
Now, the team must contend with the league's biggest front line and a Crusader squad that is 11th nationally in field-goal percentage defense and fourth in rebounding margin.
Holy Cross employs a tight zone defense that shuts off the lane regularly, so it is imperative that Navy accelerate the tempo of the game, get some points in transition and shoot better from three-point range, a season-long problem except for Kyle Barker.
"They weren't letting anything go inside up there," said Williams. "They slowed the pace down a lot and kept the score down. I was at the foul line with 10 minutes to go and looked up at the scoreboard and said, 'Come on, let's get this game moving.' "
Holy Cross won that Jan. 20 meeting, 80-71, when 36 personals were whistled against Navy. Holy Cross had more free-throw attempts (50) than field-goal attempts (46) and the Midshipmen went 3-for-17 from three-point range.
"They play a methodical tempo to take advantage of their superior size," said DeVoe. "They're very disciplined and get the ball into the post. We have to do a better job with our defense and speed it up."
As usual, the Midshipmen will run players into the game in waves, trying to overwhelm with depth. But DeVoe is unsure of the status of guard Jason Jeanpierre, who has been nursing a sprained ankle, and captain Robert Reeder, who has a sore Achilles'.