Navy turned at the point College basketball: The Mids were struggling, until, in December, senior Michael Heary was inserted at point guard, a decision that helped produce 19 wins.

March 10, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Naval Academy's second straight trip to the NCAA basketball tournament and a first-round encounter with top-ranked North Carolina at the Hartford Civic Center on Thursday afternoon was anything but a smooth ride.

There were numerous speed bumps along the way, but veteran coach Don DeVoe made one bold decision in late December that set his Midshipmen in the right direction.

After the first nine games, the Mids were 4-5 and the major problem was obvious to DeVoe and his staff.

"We just weren't getting the job done at point guard," said DeVoe, making his third trip to the NCAAs in five years. "I kept trying different guys and the offense just wouldn't click. It was frustrating the whole team."

In the preseason, DeVoe auditioned 5-foot-6 junior Aaron Smith, "a natural point guard." But Smith never lived up to expectations, and senior Terrell Hickmon also was found wanting.

DeVoe then turned to junior Skip Victor, an athletic guard who saw limited action as a sophomore reserve.

Victor admitted being uncomfortable running the team and pressure defenses easily disrupted Navy's offensive flow.

Out of desperation, DeVoe turned to senior co-captain Michael Heary, who had prospered the previous years alternating between shooting guard and small forward, averaging a team-high 17.9 points his junior year.

Surprisingly, Heary, whose playmaking experience had to be traced back to prep school in Fredonia. N.Y., readily accepted the challenge.

"Ever since Michael took over the point, we've been improving," said DeVoe. "The way he has handled the job is the biggest reason we won 19 games this season. I couldn't have asked him to do anything more. In the Patriot League tourney, he called all the plays."

Shifting Heary paid an added dividend. It freed Victor to play shooting guard, and the 6-3 California native was the Mids' most consistent performer at both ends of the floor the last half of the season. Victor averaged 13.1 points in the last 15 games and capped the regular season by winning MVP honors in the conference tournament.

Conversely, Heary's offense suffered. His scoring average dipped more than four points to 13.8 and he shot an anemic 34 percent from the field. In fact, he saved his best game for last, scoring 26 points in the title-clincher against Lafayette.

"I don't like making excuses," said Heary, fourth on Navy's all-time scoring list with 1,581 points. "But I think there were a couple of reasons for my shooting falling off. I played a lot more minutes this year, plus having to run the offense. I've always been a better scorer coming off screens than shooting off the dribble."

In any case, Heary has relished his new role.

"I know I'm not the quickest point guard, not nearly as fast as [North Carolina's] Ed Cota," he acknowledged. "But I feel comfortable handling the ball and, at 6-5, I've got the advantage of seeing over most guys defending me. It's helped my passing, and I can also post-up down low.

"And I don't get down if I miss a couple of shots. I've got the confidence to keep shooting, and if I get to the foul line I usually make it [87 percent]. I just have to keep being aggressive."

As much as Heary's leadership has solidified the point-guard position, it is Victor who has made the most marked improvement.

"Skip really benefited by the change in backcourt," DeVoe said. "Being such a great athlete, he's more effective out on the wing, slashing to the basket and also hitting the offensive boards. Plus, he's our best defender."

A standout wide receiver at Cerritos High in Los Angeles, Victor was heavily recruited by Colorado State for football. But his mother, Rachel, pushed him to go to the academy, and Navy assistant Doug Wojick convinced him to stick to basketball.

"I was so used to my mother screaming at me," Victor said with a laugh, "that it was easy for me to adapt to the military regimen."

After averaging only 2.1 points as a sophomore, Victor spent the off-season working on improving his jump shot and on his offensive moves.

He shot 48 percent from the field this season and helped fill the offensive void when Heary and senior forward Hassan Booker both experienced scoring slumps.

"Everything worked out the best for the team," said Heary. "People talk about my scoring falling off. But, hey, I've got two conference championship rings. That's the bottom line."

Now the Mids, who will enter the first-round tournament game as 28-point underdogs, will try to work a miracle against Antawn Jamison and his talented supporting cast of Tar Heels.

"I don't think my players are awe-struck," said DeVoe.

"We just have to step it up to a higher level than we played in the Patriot League. We'll just have to play the game of our lives."

Navy vs. UNC

What: East Regional, first round

When: Thursday

Where: Hartford, Conn.

Time: 12: 20 p.m.

TV/radio: Chs. 13, 9/WNAV (1430 AM)

The line: N. Carolina by 28

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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