DeChellis’s mix of tough love, em­pa­thy is win­ning for­mula for Mids

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It was cold in An­napo­lis on the first Fri­day in Jan­uary, the tem­per­a­tures hov­er­ing around freez­ing, when the mem­bers of the Naval Academy bas­ket­ball team made their way across the Yard — Navy’s cam­pus — to Alumni Hall for prac­tice.

No one was in a very good mood. The pre­vi­ous night, the Mid­ship­men had been throt­tled, 71-53, by Bos­ton University on their home court. A sea­son that had started with so much prom­ise was sud­denly spin­ning out of con­trol. The Mids were a dis­ap­point­ing 5-10 but, more im­por­tant, they had started Pa­triot League play 0-3.

“They just blew us out,” Coach Ed DeChellis said this past Fri­day, five weeks later. “We had played well enough to win but hadn’t won in our first two games. We came back from Holy Cross [af­ter los­ing at the buzzer] and were just com­pletely flat.”

DeChellis is in his sixth sea­son at Navy, so he is fa­mil­iar with the life his play­ers lead and how dif­fer­ent it is from al­most all other Divi­sion I ath­letes. That’s why he doesn’t of­ten jump them. Now though, some­thing had to be done.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween crit­i­ciz­ing and coach­ing,” he said. “I didn’t think our guys were un­der­stand­ing the dif­fer­ence. They were tak­ing things per­son­ally. If some­one misses a box-out or doesn’t find some­one on de­fense, they need to be told, some­times firmly if it’s a re­peated mis­take. But that’s coach­ing. It’s what I’m paid to do.”

And so, be­fore prac­tice that af­ter­noon, DeChellis firmly ex­plained that to his play­ers. They needed to be tougher, he told them. They needed to ac­cept be­ing coached, not sulk about it. They needed, quite sim­ply, to get bet­ter.

“You needed thick skin to sit in that meet­ing,” said guard Shawn An­der­son, the Mids’ lead­ing scorer and emo­tional leader. “It was a mo­ment to look in the mir­ror, for each of us to look at our­selves and un­der­stand we needed to han­dle things bet­ter. That day, we needed to han­dle be­ing called out. It was a lit­tle bit of a shocker, I think, but it was clearly the right thing to be done.”

For­ward Tom Lacey, a ju­nior like An­der­son, said al­most the same thing.

“There was fric­tion and there was frus­tra­tion,” he said. “The word Coach D kept us­ing was ‘fiber.’ Did we have the fiber to deal with ad­ver­sity? We had shown it was there in some of our pre-con­fer­ence games. He was making the point we had to do it con­sis­tently — and we hadn’t.”

Since that day, the Mid­ship­men (15-11, 10-4) have won 10 of 11 games, in­clud­ing Satur­day night’s 68-60 vic­tory against Lafayette.

They have gone from dead last in the Pa­triot League to a tie for sec­ond place, putting them in po­si­tion to avoid a first-round game in the con­fer­ence tour­na­ment for the first time since DeChellis ar­rived in the spring of 2011.

“The first goal is to fin­ish in the top six so our first game is in the quar­ter­fi­nals,” DeChellis said Fri­day. “We go one step at a time around here. It’s been a while.”

A long while. Navy won the Pa­triot tour­na­ment ti­tle three times in five years un­der Don DeVoe (1994, 1997, 1998) but had taken a deep dive since los­ing the con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game to Holy Cross in 2001. DeChellis knew it was go­ing to take a while to turn things around when he sur­prised the col­lege bas­ket­ball world by leav­ing Penn State, his alma mater, af­ter tak­ing the Nit­tany Li­ons to the NCAA tour­na­ment in 2011.

“I knew it would take time, but I don’t think I knew just how dif­fi­cult it would be,” he said, able to smile now at the mem­ory. “There are no quick fixes at an academy. You can’t bring in grad­u­ate trans­fers or, for that mat­ter, any trans­fers. You can’t go out and get ju­nior col­lege play­ers. And the prep school pro­gram had gone away. We needed to start over.”

Square one was not an un­fa­mil­iar place for DeChellis. He had gone 7-20 in his first sea­son at East Ten­nessee State and 9-19 to start his ten­ure at Penn State. Still, 3-26 was a shock to his sys­tem, as was 20 wins — to­tal — in his first three sea­sons at Navy. Since then, the im­prove­ment has been grad­ual: 13-19, fol­lowed by 19-14 last sea­son.

The jump to 19 wins, in­clud­ing 9-9 in the Pa­triot League, was sul­lied by a stag­ger to the fin­ish line af­ter a fast start. The Mids fin­ished in a four-way tie for fourth place and won their firstround tour­na­ment game against Lafayette but then were edged by Le­high.

“We strug­gled down the stretch, and I couldn’t un­der­stand why,” DeChellis said. “We had guys with dings, but ev­ery team does in Fe­bru­ary. I went back and looked at ev­ery tape, and we looked tired. I had to re­mind my­self what life is like for these guys.”

And so DeChellis has changed things up this win­ter as the end of the reg­u­lar sea­son ap­proaches. Prac­tices are shorter. When the team needs to look at tape, it’s done at lunchtime, so the af­ter­noon ses­sions are over ear­lier. This past Thurs­day, af­ter hang­ing on to beat Loyola on Wed­nes­day night, the Mids did yoga and a walk-through. No run­ning, no con­tact.

Two weeks af­ter the “coach­ing vs. crit­i­cism” meet­ing, the team trav­eled to Army. The MVP of that trip was team doc­tor Ed McDe­vitt. A virus had run through the team. Eight play­ers, plus DeChellis, needed IVs on the bus trip up and that night at the ho­tel.

Lacey re­mem­bers be­ing awak­ened the morn­ing of the trip at 6 o’clock, by a plebe. “I was ly­ing on the floor of the bath­room,” he said. “I think I just de­cided I’d save a lot of time if I stayed there.”

“Worst bus trip of my life,” DeChellis said. “I re­mem­ber Doc McDe­vitt giv­ing me a sec­ond IV bag and me say­ing, ‘I’m go­ing to need to feel a lot bet­ter just so I can die.’ It was re­ally aw­ful.”

The next day, the team’s fiber showed. The Mids blew a lead late, then won in over­time, 9680.

“That game showed who we are and who we can be,” said An­der­son, an­other of the IV-8. “We just need to keep be­ing that team.”

Af­ter Satur­day, there are four reg­u­lar sea­son games left, in­clud­ing trips to first-place Buck­nell and the pre­sea­son league fa­vorite, Le­high. Then comes the con­fer­ence tour­na­ment which, nat­u­rally, co­in­cides with midterm ex­ams.

“Not a prob­lem,” Lacey said with a grin. “School will take care of it­self. We’ll be ready to go. We have to be ready to go.”

They’ve come a long way in five weeks.

John Fe­in­stein

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