They were bigger and stronger inside, had better athletes than the current Navy team and, after their first NCAA tournament, were expected to win . . . often.
The last midshipmen to represent the academy in postseason play were anchored by David Robinson. From 1985 to 1987, Navy made the NCAA tournament every season, creating some big waves in 1986, when Robinson, forward Vernon Butler and point guard Doug Wojcik led the team into the final eight before it was eliminated by Duke in the East Regional final.
Navy won its conference tournament all three seasons, first the ECAC South and then the Colonial Athletic Association, riding on the broad shoulders of 7-foot center Robinson.
Today, the players are scattered around the country, with their military obligations ended and occupations ranging from possible MVP of the NBA (Robinson in San Antonio) to surgical instruments salesman (Kylor Whitaker in Pittsburgh).
But they are united by their admiration for the overachieving Navy team that won the Patriot League championship and will take on top-seeded Missouri tomorrow at the West Regional in Ogden, Utah.
"These kids playing now have accomplished more than we did," said Whitaker. "They overcame much more adversity than we ever had to in many facets of the game.
"They came from nowhere and climbed a huge mountain. Navy is not a basketball powerhouse, but the one thing that is always expected is that the players compete to the best of their ability. That's what this team did."
Robinson, who left with 32 school records and two All-America selections, said he follows the team's progress and realized that "Navy has been struggling the last couple of years. I'm very pleased with what they've been doing. I just don't know the current players."
Few outside of the Patriot League do. There are no scorers or rebounders in the same class with Robinson and Butler and no flashy players with the possible exception of freshman point guard Brian Walker.
"They have players of medium build and height," said Cliff Rees, the Ellicott City native who is the only member of the powerhouse teams still in the military, stationed at the naval air station in Memphis, Tenn.
"I try to follow them as closely as I can. The way things started, it looked like another one of those years. But they came back. They light it up and make them fun to watch."
Rees, who served in Operation Desert Storm, said the current Navy team is not as fortunate as its mid-'80s predecessors because "they don't have a player like David or Vernon or Dave, who was a great point guard. Normally, you don't see those types at the academy."
"This team has matured a lot after going 5-10," said Butler, second to Robinson in all-time scoring and rebounding. "They're just different than we were. They've got five or six guys who can hit the big three-pointer, and they get scoring off the bench. These guys all assume their roles well."
Whitaker and Rees could shoot from outside themselves, but Paul Evans, then the coach, rarely dipped deeply into his reserves as Don DeVoe does now.
"Coach Evans held pretty tight reins on us and worked us hard," said Butler, who works with an accounting firm that handles defense contracts in the Washington area.
"He'd get us pretty ticked off at him, but then he'd let us do it in games for ourselves. He had about eight guys he had confidence in, and that's who he'd play."
"Paul didn't want to play that many people," he said. "We'd play three guards with David and Vernon, and we were very patterned and zone-oriented. On this team, [DeVoe] encourages everyone to score and assume roles."
With Vic Mickel on administrative suspension, the current Navy team is also much younger than the Robinson-led Mids. The only senior on the roster is reserve Brad Cougher.
"I have more appreciation for winning now as a coach than I did as a player," said Wojcik, one of DeVoe's assistants. "There was always another game when you played, but it's heartening to see this team come so far.
"As a player, though, there was always a lot of pressure on us to win after that first year. I remember Army games I just wanted to get through alive."
"This team had the element of surprise going for them," said Butler. "They go to the tournament as an unknown. It was hard for us to be unknown with David around. We always had a lot of pressure on us after that first year."
Said Rees: "I was a sophomore when we went to the final eight. The experience, the camaraderie is something you never regain in life. Basketball is much more fun."
MISSOURI vs. NAVY
* Day: Tomorrow
* Time: 8:13 p.m.
* Site: Ogden, Utah
* Region: West
* Seedings: Missouri No. 1, Navy No. 16
* Records: Missouri 25-3, Navy 17-12
* TV: Channel 11
* Radio: WNAV (1430 AM)