Navy seeks key pieces Mids emphasize ball-handling, defense for Patriot title repeat

October 22, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Brian Walker and Michael Green, who co-captained last season's NCAA-bound Navy basketball team, each averaged a modest six points a game. But finding adequate replacements for the two departed seniors will be Don DeVoe's primary concern in preparing his Midshipmen for their defense of the Patriot League title.

Walker, a four-year starter at point guard, was the catalyst for the Navy offense with his ball-handling skills and pesky defense. Green, a quick-handed, 6-foot-5 small forward, served as DeVoe's defensive stopper, regularly assigned to police the rival team's top scorer.

Said DeVoe, starting his fifth season at Navy: "Brian and Michael were both outstanding players, and we don't know if we can truly replace them in the key roles they played in our team concept."

The Mids return three other starters -- their two top scorers, swingman Michael Heary (17.9 scoring average) and all-purpose forward Hassan Booker (12.5), and center Mike Palumbo, another defensive specialist.

But with a formidable opening game against Wake Forest less than a month away, DeVoe remains uncertain who will fill the roles of Walker and Green.

For the moment, junior Aaron Smith, from Silver Spring, is running the Navy offense, and senior Matt Sladky, who played just about every position last season, is being groomed as the defensive stopper.

Smith will likely share time with senior Terrell Hickmon, who played mostly off guard last year.

"Smith can take the ball different places on the floor," said DeVoe. "Hickmon had trouble handling the double team when we played Utah in the NCAA regionals."

Smith, a stocky 5-6, is two inches shorter than Walker, who was generously listed at 5-8, but says he has the skills to keep the Navy offense in a fast-breaking mode.

"I learned a lot playing behind Brian the past two years," he said. "Sure, his shoes will be hard to fill, but I really worked on my game this summer, focusing on getting the ball to the right people.

"Defensively, I like to slap the ball away from a shooter and pressure the dribbler just like Brian. But the main thing is that I have to try and provide the same motivation for my teammates."

Sladky, who averaged 7.4 points in a sixth-man role as a junior, says he has the background and mentality to fill Green's defensive role.

"Green had great natural ability in sticking with his man," said Sladky, a bulked-up 6-5, 220 pounds. "But I got strong grounding from my dad, who coached me in high school. Like Coach DeVoe, he always stressed defensive fundamentals.

"I also got a chance to play everything from point guard to strong forward in high school, so I have a lot of experience covering guys bigger and smaller than me."

Said DeVoe: "Matt is like having an extension of the coaching staff on the court. He's a heady player who rarely turns the ball over."

Defense and rebounding have always been strong suits of teams coached by DeVoe, who has won 408 games in 24 years. But the offense struggled last season, averaging 72.3 points and shooting 43 percent from the field.

Heary, who can hit the three-pointer or drive the lane, and Booker, a resourceful small forward who consistently beats bigger men off the dribble, are bona fide scorers. But to upgrade the offense, DeVoe is counting on stronger contributions from his two veteran frontcourt players -- 6-9 senior Josh Height and 6-11 junior Josh Williams.

Height, a spindly 200 pounds last winter, was hampered by foot problems and underwent surgery in the off-season. He has since added 20 pounds and shown signs of recovering his soft shooting touch in the early workouts.

Williams has displayed strong rebounding and shot-blocking skills in brief appearances the past two seasons, but his propensity for getting in early foul trouble has sorely tried DeVoe's patience.

"With Josh, it's mostly a matter of maturity and discipline," said DeVoe. "He thinks he can block every shot. But I really need him out on the floor this season if we're going to compete for another Patriot League title."

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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