Head coach Ed DeChellis felt his Navy men's basketball team played pretty well in scrimmages against Liberty and William & Mary. Neither of those schools are anywhere near the caliber of Ohio State, Navy's season-opening opponent in the third annual Veterans Classic.
Having graduated three senior starters and lost a fourth member of the rotation to transfer, DeChellis has a revamped roster he is still sorting through with just over a week remaining until next Friday's nationally-televised opener against the Buckeyes of the Big Ten Conference.
"I think we've had a very good fall up to this point in terms of our team and what we've been able to accomplish. I think we improved in each scrimmage so that was positive," DeChellis said during Navy's basketball Media Day event. "That being said, I don't know how good we are. I really don't. I'm looking forward to seeing how this team evolves because I think we have a lot of nice pieces."
Navy's two biggest holes come at point guard and the post position where Tilman Dunbar and Will Kelly must be replaced. Dunbar was a three-year starter and finished sixth on Navy's all-time list with 434 career assists. Kelly played in 125 career games with 77 starts and ranks second in program history with 199 blocked shots.
DeChellis said junior Nourse Fox and sophomore Hasan Abdullah are battling to replace Dunbar at the point. Fox played in 32 games as Dunbar's backup last season, averaging 8.4 minutes and dishing off 30 assists.
"The point guard spot has been a very good battle, a very competitive opportunity for Nourse Fox and Hassan Abdullah," DeChellis said. "We've had two scrimmages and both of the guys have played well in both. I see both of them playing a lot at that position. They're both a little different."
Abdullah appeared in eight games before sustaining a hip injury that required season-ending surgery. The 6-foot, 195-pounder impressed the coaching staff with his speed and quickness before going down a year ago. DeChellis said the Alabama native, who is fully recovered from the injury, must learn how to operate at proper pace while being more vocal on the court.
"Hassan can really push the ball. Now I'm trying to get him to change speeds. You can't go out and throw fastballs for nine innings. I'm trying to get him to use different speeds, doing more start and stop type of stuff," DeChellis said. "You can't be flying up the floor all the time. You need to pick your spots. He's a willing passer, a willing driver and can shoot the ball. Now he needs to make the right decisions with the basketball."
Senior Edward Alade would seem the likely heir apparent to Kelly at the pivot spot as he possesses the most experience. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Texan has played in 88 games with 22 starts. After averaging 5.3 points and 3.4 rebounds as a sophomore, Alade saw his minutes and statistics drop last season because Kelly played so well.
"Consistency is what I'm on Ed Alade about. He's responded some days, other days he hasn't responded so well," DeChellis said. "Other guys are pushing him. We have a lot of competition up front."
Long-armed freshman Evan Wieck has looked good in preseason and is very much in the hunt to start down low. The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder from Amarillo, Texas was a key member of the Hargrave Military Academy squad that captured the National Prep Tournament championship for 2015-2016.
"Evan just does everything solid. He hedges ball screens real well. He makes his free throws. He makes open jumpers out to 15 feet," DeChellis said. "Very savvy with very good court awareness. He just has a feel for the game."
DeChellis had a similar description of James Butler, another plebe who is a virtual clone of Wieck at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds. Butler was a Washington Post first team All-Metro selection after averaging 27.5 points as a senior at Lake Braddock High. The Fairfax, Virginia native is the son of Vernon Butler, one of Navy's all-time greatest players.
"James needs to be James. He's not Vernon. They're different people, different players at different stages of their career," DeChellis said. "I don't want James to put any more pressure on himself than a freshman normally does. That's hard for a young guy. I've told James to just be who you are, do what you do and play to your strengths."
Navy's top returning player is junior swingman Shawn Anderson, who led the team in scoring last season with 13.2 points per game. The versatile 6-foot-4, 220-pounder also ranked second in assists (87), third in steals (26) and fourth in rebounding (4.0 average).
DeChellis said Anderson sat out the entire month of September with a calf injury and is "just getting back into full swing." The sixth-year head coach is pushing the Pennsylvania resident to become a more complete player.
"Shawn is a very good player and we need him to perform well," DeChellis said. "I've turned the heat up on him a little bit, especially defensively. Shawn needs to be a much better defender for us. I thought last year at times we gave him a pass."
Power forward Tom Lacey, who started 30 of 33 games and averaged 4.5 points and 4.2 rebounds, is the only other returning starter. The rugged 6-foot-7, 235-pound junior snagged 11 rebounds in the scrimmage with William & Mary and the coaching staff loves the passion, energy and emotion he displays on the court.
Wing guard Kendall Knorr was the other starter lost to graduation and will likely be replaced in the lineup by senior Tim Abruzzo, who led Navy in 3-pointers made (40) and steals (35) last season. Abruzzo, who will need to increase his scoring after averaging 6.6 points, is almost two years removed from a severe knee injury and is moving much better.
"Tim Abruzzo has played very well in both scrimmages. He has shot the ball well and done some good things as we would expect a senior to do," DeChellis said. "I thought Tim played pretty well early last year, but I thought he got tired. His ACL leg got tired. He was dragging his leg around. I think he's in a much better place this year."
Junior Bryce Dulin and sophomore Ryan Pearson are two other candidates for increased playing time on the wing. Dulin, who scored a career-high 16 points against Colgate in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament, recently broke a bone in his cheek while diving for a loose ball and will be out another two to three weeks. Pearson, who has the ability to get hot from 3-point range, scored 27 points in the William & Mary scrimmage.
"I like our team. We have pretty good depth. When we shoot the ball well, we can be really good," DeChellis said. "We're trying to play inside-outside. We have kids who are very willing passers in the post. They kick the ball out for step-in threes. We want to push the ball because we're faster getting up the floor. I think we can score in different ways right now."
DeChellis noted the Midshipmen must improve their perimeter defense now that Kelly, the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, is not lurking near the basket.
"Will affected a lot of shots. We don't have that. We have to be more solid defensively. We can't gamble because we don't have someone back there who can change shots," DeChellis said.
Navy has improved its record, both overall and within the Patriot League, every season under DeChellis. The Midshipmen are coming off a 19-14 (9-9) record, their first winning season since 2008-2009.
"We have a confident feel to us. I think we've improved every year and that's a positive, but We haven't won the prize yet," DeChellis said.
"We have to continue that trend, whether that's more wins overall or more wins in the league or winning the championship. We have to take the next step, whatever that may be. This is not a team that by any stretch has arrived. We haven't done anything. We want to win a Patriot League championship and get to the NCAA Tournament. That's our goal.
Despite the progress shown last season, Navy was picked seventh out of 10 schools in the preseason Patriot League poll. The Midshipmen have never been picked higher than eighth during the six-year tenure of DeChellis. Last season, Navy finished tied for fourth after being picked in the preseason to finish 10th.
"I don't think the coaches know who we have. They haven't seen our newcomers or our freshmen that have turned into sophomores," DeChellis said. "That doesn't really bother me at all. When we start playing games, nobody cares where teams were picked. If we keep everybody healthy, we'll be in the mix."
OHIO STATE @ NAVY
Nov. 11, 9 p.m.