ANNAPOLIS, MD – It’s not often that the US Naval Academy gets to take centerstage in the college basketball world, but it does happen once every November at the annual Veteran’s Classic. This year, Auburn took care of Davidson in the opener, 76-66, before Navy pulled out a 62-57 victory over East Carolina.
The event has become an annual learning experience for Midshipmen head coach Ed DeChellis and his crew — one that he hopes will pay off when the stakes are higher.
“The overall atmosphere, the hype that is going on campus, hopefully when we will be playing in a Patriot League Championship game, we will revert back to what we had gone through with this experience,” DeChellis said in an interview before the game.
Coming into Friday’s game against the Pirates, Navy had won only once before in this event, beating Pitt in 2017, 71-62. That was Navy’s best team under DeChellis. Although they couldn’t make the NCAA Tournament that year, there’s confidence in Annapolis now.
Navy does not have a David Robinson-esque player on their 22-man roster — that’s what it took to get the Midshipmen to the Elite Eight in 1986. They also don’t have a single senior. They do have a set of twins, however, in Alec and Luke Loehr from Inner Grove Heights Minnesota. When put together, they could be a formidable front court presence. The Loehr brothers combined for around 25 percent of the Mids’ points on Friday and their length was shown throughout. With nine minutes to play in the second half, Luke hit two free throws to give the Midshipmen their first lead of the half. Alec then stretched that lead out at the 1:51 mark with a layup.
Luke was 3-4 from behind the arc and Alec was perfect from the field. Neither had much playing time their first two years in Annapolis, but Friday was a good sign of what’s to come for the brothers.
Dishing them the ball and practically leading the way for the Midshipmen this past week was sophomore guard John Carter Jr. Carter exposed East Carolina on Friday, scoring 13 points and picking up 10 rebounds. He struggled in the opener against George Mason but scored 17 points against D-III Washington (MD) on Sunday.
Last season, Carter was named to the Patriot League All-Freshman team. If he continues to play like this, he could step up and make the All-Patriot League team for 2019-20.
The play from all three has helped grow DeChellis’s confidence in his squad.
“There is nobody we play in this tournament that is not a quality team,” DeChellis said after the game.
The Midshipmen have more tests ahead of them before conference play, including Virginia and Liberty. Last year, the league had three 20-win teams and made a lot of progress towards the end of the year.
Colgate returns its top five producers from a NCAA Tournament team that almost upset 2 seed Tennessee last year.
Other top teams Bucknell and Lehigh seem to always host a conference tournament game come March. And local rivals American and Loyola (MD) return Player of the Year candidates in Sa’eed Nelson and Andrew Kostecka.
The Midshipmen would need some magic to make it back to the dance for the first time in 22 years, but it’s not completely out of the question. This is just the beginning of the fight to the top for a young Navy squad. And as always, it comes down to those three games in March. If the Midshipmen’s young players can click together by then, they could turn some heads.