On a rebuilding roster rife with inexperience, many pundits aren’t expecting much out of the Navy Midshipmen for the 2013-14 basketball season. That much was evident with the lack of media attention they received at the Patriot League Media Day, after being selected to finish dead last in the coach’s preseason poll. Even though American University is returning far less and has a rookie head coach on its sidelines, Navy’s 2-12 conference record last season simply couldn’t be ignored.
Despite the morose expectations, Navy head coach Ed DeChellis has a history of turning programs around in his third year. After inheriting a seven-win East Tennessee State team, DeChellis guided the Buccaneers to 17 wins in only his third season. Later on, at arguably the toughest place to coach in the Big Ten, Penn State enjoyed an eight game swing from season two to three under DeChellis.
Can the Mids continue the trend in DeChellis’ third season?
“We have a chance. We can’t have injuries to key guys,” answered DeChellis. “If we can stay away from injuries, I think we have a chance to be better. I know we’re better. We just had two scrimmages – two years ago, one year ago we couldn’t play with either team – now we can play with those teams and win some halves.”
After producing the tenth best assist rate in the country as a rookie, point guard Tilman Dunbar is viewed by most as the eventual savior of the downtrodden program. While he’s incredibly important, many are overlooking one player who could be just as critical in getting Navy back to respectability. That player is junior forward Worth Smith.
After enduring two oft-injured seasons at the Naval Academy, Smith is poised to break out after undergoing successful surgery to repair a torn labrum in the offseason. The junior played through the pain of an injured shoulder as a sophomore, and while it’s unknown how much it affected his play, the condition was more than likely restricting him on the court.
“I’m not really sure, just randomly at times I’d play and forget about it and I’d be playing fine,” said Smith when asked about the condition of his shoulder last season. “Then (the shoulder) would pop out and go back in, and I would think about it.”
Unfortunately for the 6’6” forward, his shoulder “popped out” on more than one occasion. Even with the shoulder instability, though, Smith managed to lead the Mids in scoring (10.2 ppg), rebounding (5.2 rpg), steals (35) and blocks (37). Now with a clean bill of health, the onus falls on Smith to be more assertive on the floor. He is, after all, one of the more mature players of a team that was 338th nationally in experience last season.
Smith is certainly cognizant of his importance. “I’m definitely working on coming into that role. I’ve never been the main scorer. I was always a good player but never the main go-to-guy, but this year Coach is telling me to ‘take more shots, take more shots.’ I’ve been doing that, taking more control of things and I feel like this year should be a great year.”
“It’s time for him,” echoed DeChellis. “He’s shooting the ball with more confidence, he’s shooting free-throws with much more confidence. He’s a better player and that’s why hopefully we’ll be a better basketball team. Worth Smith is a young guy who can do a lot. Sometimes you gotta really jump-start him. You have to go out and hook up the clamps and jump-start him because he just doesn’t have that DNA. He’s a very soft-spoken young man.”
Soft spoken or not, Smith must be leaned upon more than ever. The versatile “stretch four” needs to have his best season yet if Navy has visions of breaking their two-year run as the last place team of the Patriot League.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride