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Billy Lange: Verbatim

21 January, 2007

by

In just his third year as head coach of Navy, Billy Lange has brought youth and energy to Annapolis. Coaching a team packed with underclassmen, Lange led the Midshipmen to a 7-2 start to this season and currently has them jostling for position in the Patriot League. Lange took the time to talk to Basketball U.’s Elliot Smilowitz about his players, his coaching style, and his hopes for the future of the Navy program.

Q: Your team is obviously very young. You have one senior, and only a couple of juniors. From a coaching standpoint, how does that make it easier and how does that make it harder for you?

A: I think the easy part of it is — and I don’t know if it’s easy but it’s encouraging and it’s fun — to build your system here and have a lot of the kids that are going to see it through over the next two, three, four years and be a part of something from the ground level up. Where it’s hard is that there’s a lot more than Xs and Os that wins games at this level. There’s the intensity of it, there’s the preparation, the focus, the will to get through an entire season, the understanding of practices, the importance of scouting reports. And you can’t warn people on that. You can talk about it all you want, warning them is not going to do anything. They’ve got to actually go through it to understand how important everything is in terms of winning and losing with all those little things.

Q: You guys were picked seventh in the preseason in the Patriot League, and everyone considered you one of the bottom teams. Did you use that as motivation this year?

A: I didn’t. Obviously we talk about where other people see us at. We’re at the point now where we’re not going to try to use other people’s expectations as our motivation. We’re building a basketball program that a few years ago was not doing real well in Division I. We’ve got to build as well as we’re able to build. I always tell my players to be concerned about what we can control, and not what we can’t control. The selection by the coaches to pick us seventh and eighth was warranted. We haven’t done much lately and now we’re playing a bunch of young guys in a league that’s dominated by juniors and seniors.

Q: You guys started out really well; you were 7-2 and even put a scare into some of the power conference teams. What was the key to the really strong start to the season?

A: I think we really shot the ball well, number one. And number two — and we’d be foolish not to know this — is that people aren’t really going to be too fearful right now when Navy steps into the arena. People probably looked down on us, and we caught some people by surprise, playing a lot of young kids that people probably don’t know a lot about. We shot the ball well and defended decently. We’re still continuing to do some of those things, but teams are playing a little better against us.

Q: With such a young team and with players like Greg Sprink and Corey Johnson being asked to step up and be the leaders on the team, how do you think that has gone?

A: I think those guys have done an admirable job as captains of this basketball team. When you’re only juniors — and this is not a cop-out for them — but they still are concerned with themselves a little bit. They want to make sure they’re playing well, that they’re doing the things our coaching staff is asking them to do. So as much as having young teams and young kids is important to our program, the development of Corey and Greg as leaders is important as well. We always have to remind ourselves that they’re only juniors, and that next year they’re going to be seniors and going to be better. But they’ve done an admirable job in leading this basketball team. We have very good chemistry on our team. We don’t always play well together, but that has a lot to do with inexperience and immaturity. But our chemistry in terms of guys wanting to share the ball and cover for each other on defense has been excellent since the first day of practice.

Q: With Corey in particular, how do you feel he’s stepped into the role of being the floor general?

A: I think he’s done a great job. His numbers in terms of scoring output are down, but for the first time in his career at this point he’s got more assists than turnovers, he’s got a higher shooting percentage from the field, he’s calling and setting our defenses out there. I think he’s done a good job. He’s always had it in him. He’s a kid that gets the most out of his ability. He’s wonderful at setting the table for his teammates and spread it amongst the rest of our guys.

Q: And how about Greg? His shot has sometimes not been there, but he’s been doing a lot more this year than he’s done in the past.

A: His percentages aren’t where I think they’re going to get to, because he’s obviously a very good shooter, but he’s rebounding the ball, he’s passing the ball, he’s playing better defense than he ever has. He’s really improved his game as an individual. He’s driving the ball to the basket more. He’s more than just a three-point shooter for us. And also he’s got the burden of being a leader on a team with 10 freshmen and sophomores. I’ve been very pleased with Greg Sprink; he’s doing a great job for us.

Q: How do you feel about Kaleo Kina’s play this year?

A: I think he’s got great talent. I think he’s going to be a very good guard. I know he’s going to be a very good guard in our league. He is a natural talent. He’s got incredible will to make incredible plays on the basketball floor. He is going to progress and develop as he grows between the ears. That’s just what it is. At some point in your career, when you learn you’ve got a pretty good game from the shoulders up, it helps you improve a great deal. That’s where he’s at. He has the ability on the basketball floor to make plays that no one on our team can make. Against Villanova, he made some drives that were just unbelievable. No one plays harder than him. I’m happy with his development. He is a much-improved player.

Q: Your team obviously has a lot of shooters, very perimeter-oriented. Are you looking to develop some of your freshmen as post players, are you looking to recruit a post player…?

A: I would say yes to both of those. We are developing our post players, constantly working on their back-to-the-basket game. Trey Stanton is a young guy that’s going to be a good post player. T.J. Topercer, at 6-7 in our league will eventually be a good post player. Bobby Fenske is going to be a good post player. We’ve got two 6-10 kids coming in. When you’re trying to post up mice against men, it’s very difficult. We’ve got the size, but the girth and the know-how right now has yet to catch up to their abilities. Trey Stanton is in there at 6-10 and 250 pounds, and he’s very talented and going to be a great player, there’s no doubt in my mind. But it’s a little different when you’re going up against 6-10, 270, or when we played Georgetown 7-2, 280. They’re developing, they’re working on their skills. I think they’re going to be very good players for us down the line.

Q: Along those same lines, you’ve sometimes had some trouble rebounding this year. Is it just a matter of the personnel? Have you de-emphasized rebounding at all?

A: No, it’s been a major point of emphasis since the beginning of the year for us. I think that the numbers themselves are a little skewed. And what I mean by that is that we’ve had some games where we haven’t done a great job of keeping opponents off the glass. But our offensive rebound numbers are down for two reasons. Number one, we started the year off shooting very well, and there were not many offensive rebounds to be had. Number two, offensive rebounding is not our strong point to begin with. We look at our defensive rebounds in terms of the percentage of opponents’ misses that we’re getting. In 19 games this year, we’ve walked out of there thinking 14 times we’ve done a great job. Five times we haven’t, and it happens to be that we lost all five of those games. It’s something that we emphasize; defending and rebounding are very important in our program. But our offensive rebounding numbers are down because our shooting percentages are up. Two years ago, we were a great offensive rebounding team, but we only shot 30-something percent, so we’d better rebound the ball. This year we’re shooting a little bit over 40, our three-point numbers at the beginning of the year were terrific, so there’s not as many offensive rebounds to get. I think it skews the overall numbers.

Q: Can you explain the “Vegas” offense and how it works?

A: It’s still developing, but it’s a combination of hard cutting, dribble penetration, ball screens and misdirection screening to get the defense off-balance. Sometimes we fool ourselves in it; we’re not 100-percent sure what we’re doing yet out there on the floor but we will get there. We’ve had games where we run great offense and not shot the ball better. It’s still developing.

Q: After having a really good non-conference schedule this year, you struggled a little bit at the start of the non-conference games. Are you worried about “hitting a wall?”

A: People are asking me that, and I think that when you’re counting on a lot of freshmen, especially at a service academy where there’s three major components: Division I basketball, the everyday service component of our school, and obviously the academic requirement. It’d be foolish to say that your young kids don’t get tired. But we’re not going to use that as an excuse. The fact that we’re young just happens to be a fact. It’s not an excuse. What I would say is that when you get into conference play, there’s great familiarity. We’re still a program that’s looking for signs of development. So I see, last year we go up to Bucknell, we lose by 37. This year, we go up there, we have a chance to win in the last 5 minutes of the game. We play Lehigh at home last year, we lose by 25. This time we’re down one point, with 4 minutes to go, with the ball. We hold Lafayette to the lowest scoring total in the league in quite some time. We go to Holy Cross, last year they beat us bad up there, we’re down one at the half. They go on a big run at the beginning of the second half, and it kind of deflated us a little bit, but we get back within eight. So I’m looking at it as we’re getting better. We want to be winning in conference, no doubt about it, but we’re a much much better basketball team than we were at this time last year. It’s because we’re developing, we’re getting better. I’m not concerned with “Are we regressing?” I know how this league is. I know how good the coaches are and how good the players are. We’re looking for little pockets of improvement and I think we see it. Now, are we going to start pulling out some of these games? I’m not concerned with that, I think that’s going to happen eventually.

Q: You’ve mentioned the defense a couple of times. With having so many young players in such a team-based and very vocal defense, how do you think everybody’s picking up the defense?

A: It’s possession by possession. Some possessions we look great. Some we don’t. It’s very astute of you to realize how important the communication is in our defense. Our schemes are very unique. I know it’s a defense that can be great. We’ve had some unbelievable halves against Villanova, Holy Cross, Stony Brook, two great halves against Lafayette. We’ve got to put it together for 40 straight minutes. And it’s difficult because it’s a thinking man’s defense as much as it is “You’ve got to play hard.” A lot of times you can just put a kid in a game and just say, “Go play your butt off.” But in this defense, you’ve really got to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to make good reads consistently, you’ve got to make great decisions, you’ve got to be in one with all your teammates to know where you’re picking up slides, stuff like that. I’m really happy with our overall development. We’re doing a much better job defending the paint than we did last year. We’re still contesting three-point shots for the most part. We’re forcing turnovers. What I’m concerned with is we’ve got to put it together on every possession. But we’re getting there, and the defensive rebounding is a big component of that.

Q: You said a little while back that your goal is to be playing your best basketball in February. How do you feel as far as your progression to that so far?

A: Where we’re at today is, we’ve got a little less than two weeks before that time. I’ve always said that can be a sliding goal. I think right now that we are playing better basketball than we did when we were 7-2. I firmly believe that. Now we’re not shooting the ball as well, and certain individuals aren’t playing as well. But we’re making much better reads in our offense, we’re much more consistent with our defense. Now it’s all about guys getting comfortable to the point where they can go make plays. Our non-conference schedule is very hard, and I think our league schedule lends itself to familiarity where teams are scouting you. I think we’re right on course. We need a couple of breakout games where we sense ourselves doing the things that Navy basketball should be doing. I think we can be on our way to playing very good basketball the last six weeks of the season.

Q: In the last few years in the Patriot League, you’ve had some close losses, and a couple this year already. From a coaching standpoint, what do you think you have to do to get your team over the hump?

A: I think we’ve got to continue to be in those games. That’s the most important. I always look at it like we’re progressing. When we got here, our average margin of defeat in the league was absurd. We weren’t even in games. We slowly but surely chipped away at that my first year. Then we graduated a couple of guys, and last year the same thing. This is a new team, but with a lot of those guys. So all those close games right now that we’re in, whether we win or lose, they’re making us stronger. We need to continue to be in them, learn how to make good decisions at the end, knock down free throws, get big stops. It’s all part of it. I watched the same thing happen at Villanova. It’s not bad luck, it’s not karma, it’s not “woe is me.” It’s just getting it done, being in the situation, getting that feeling like you know you can win every time you’re on the floor. That’s a big part of it. The psychological aspect, the confidence aspect. We start to get some of those games and pull some of those games out, we’ll feel like we’re unstoppable.

Q: Going back a few years, when you took over the program, it had finished seventh and eighth the last couple of years. What did you do to try to change the culture of the program and put your fingerprints on it?

A: Everything. Everthing when you’re a head coach changing a program has to be important to you. Your recruiting tactics, your stationery, your office décor, how you decorate the locker room, what your slogans are, what kind of gear the guys wear, to make a change, to say, “All right, this is what Navy basketball is going to be about.” We focused a lot of our efforts on that. On the floor, our number one emphasis was, we just want to play hard. It was all about playing hard, having great energy every time you hit the floor, playing with such passion for Navy basketball that it would be noticeable amongst our fans, our administration and our basketball alums. And I think we’ve done that. Now you progress to hoping to play winning basketball, basketball that can get us in the NCAA Tournament, basketball that can get us in the upper echelon of our league, basketball that can win games at the end like you alluded to. It’s about intelligence. It’s about mental toughness. It’s about playing together. That’s where we’re at right now. I think we play hard. I’ve had coaches in this league tell me that no one plays harder than us. That’s a great compliment. Now it’s about being a little bit more cerebral on the basketball floor. When you’ve got such a young team, that’s going to take time. I feel very proud of everything our staff has done in our three years here in terms of changing the culture around.

Q: As far as recruiting, what were the things you were seeking out in your recruiting classes, and how do you think you’ve done as far as seeking out and recruiting those qualities?

A: We look for three things. We look for skilled players number one. Number two, we look for athleticism. It doesn’t have to be ridiculously athletic, but athletic enough to play at the Division I level. And the third thing, and it’s the most important to me, is toughness. And how we rate that is, we want kids from good high school basketball programs. Kids that come from great families — disciplined families. That’s important to us. We’re just selling what we think is the greatest academic and athletic package in the country: A chance to come to the Naval Academy, get top-notch education, serve your country as an officer, get connected to one of the most powerful alumni networks — if not the most powerful alumni network in the country. And to be honest with you, it’s an easy sell. You’ve just got to find the right kids. We talk all the time that we might not out-recruit the rest of the league, we might not get better players. But we’re going to get very good basketball players at the Naval Academy, get them to buy into the system, get them to buy into taking pride playing for the Naval Academy, and take it from there.

Q: Can you talk a little about the challenges of trying to recruit kids to a military academy?

A: Obviously our country is in a time where we’re defending it against the global war of terrorism, and that’s on the forefront of every human being’s mind in the United States. What we’re selling, and we’re not selling, we’re just talking about all the opportunities that can come from the Naval Academy. The biggest drawback in recruiting is the misconceptions of what a commissioned officer actually is, and what a graduate from the Naval Academy can do — what the commitment actually entails. In this business, at this school, you’ve got to be relentless in your pursuit of the right kid. You’ve got to be relentless, and you’ve got to be very leery of everybody else’s apprehensions. You’ve got to be informative, you’ve got to be there for everybody. You’ve got to be positive in your approach, not apologize for anything, and just talk about all the positives of the Naval Academy.

Q: Your predecessor, Don DeVoe, utilized the Navy Prep School a lot, which is now something that Air Force and Army are doing as well. How important is that in building your team?

A: I think, going into our third year now, that it’s become more important than it was in the first two years. We needed to get an influx of talent here and change the face of the program, and we have done that. The prep school is very important. You’re trying to get Division I players, so you’re not going to get a ton of kids who have multiple offers to take a year out of their life to attend the Naval Academy Prep School. But we have had some. We put some kids up there that we think are going to develop within the Naval Academy Prep School program, perhaps our JV program, and maybe become players for us down the line. I think it’s essential because it’s an extra year of maturity that they get. Now we have not reaped the benefits of our efforts yet, but we feel like we’ve got some kids up there now who will be freshmen next year who we’ll start to reap the benefits from.

Q: Air Force obviously is having a really great season this year. Do you take their season as proof that a service academy can do really well in Division I?

A: There’s no doubt in my mind that everything that Air Force has done is directly connected to their unique system number one, and number two the fact that their kids play extremely tough and extremely together, and take great pride at playing at Air Force. It’s literally that simple at this level. That’s what they’ve done, and I give them great compliments for what they’ve accomplished. Joe Scott is the architect, Chris Mooney did a great job and Jeff Bzdelik obviously is doing a fantastic job.

Q: The Navy football team with Paul Johnson did really well this year. Do you feel like the basketball team benefits from the success of the football program, and do you feel like you’re under pressure to match their success?

A: Let me answer the second part first: No. I put enough pressure on myself regardless of what football does. Paul has done a great job, but we’re moving at our own pace. We play in a tough, competitive conference. Football and basketball recruiting are two totally different animals. We’re going to go as the pace we want to go at. I’m very confident in our program, in our development and what we want to do. So we’re going to move at our own pace. Secondly, what football has done has helped us on two accounts. Number one, it’s definitely affected our recruiting because of the notoriety and the positive press that we’re getting from football doing what they’re doing. Number two, I think it gives our team, and our players here, a positive model to follow. You can’t say, “You can’t win at a major Division I sport at a service academy,” when the football team is doing what they’re doing. So as long as we move at our pace and we build things here the right way, I feel we’re going to be very good here in a few years.

Q: On somewhat of a similar note, with Bucknell’s success in the NCAA Tournament the last couple of years, do you find that you’ve reaped any benefits from that, in sort of a “rising tide raises all ships” type of way?

A: I think what it’s done is brought an awareness to the Patriot League as a whole. We were — up until Holy Cross beat [Bucknell] — the last league team that had beaten them, so that gave our own players some confidence. It’s just raising the awareness of the Patriot League. We still are a one-bid league, we’re still a mid- to low-major Division I league. We’re not the Big East. We’re not the Atlantic Coast Conference. But we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great coaches, great kids, and a league that stands for the true student-athlete. Bucknell beating Arkansas, beating Kansas, doing what they did last year for the entire season, what Holy Cross had done, it just raised the awareness of the Patriot League. I think every member benefits from that.

Q: You’ve got a big home game coming up against Bucknell, that’s going to be on ESPNU.

A: Oh man, you’ve got to remind me about that, huh.

Q: How do you feel about the ESPNU deal and the attention that’s being brought to the league?

A: Whatever deals we make as a league, as long as it benefits every team in the league, then they’re great deals. I’m not too knowledgeable about ESPNU versus CSTV, because I don’t control what we do, I just control the Navy basketball club. I just hope that every decision we make as a league is going to benefit all eight members and continue to enhance our image as a good basketball conference.

Q: Your home arena, Alumni Hall, is known as one of the infamous strong home arenas in the nation. What do you think it is about it? Is it the fans, the building, the tradition?

A: The tradition of the Naval Academy and our Navy basketball program brings great energy, and we’ve got the best students in the world. They’re great Midshipmen, and they’re so passionate about their fellow Midshipmen. When they get in the building and it gets rocking, it’s a great atmosphere. As we continue to get better, it’s going to really help us.

Q: You’ve got the big game with Army coming up. Now that you’ve been with Navy for a couple of years and you’ve been through this a couple of times, how important is this game?

A: It’s important for two reasons. Number one, it is the rivalry of our institution, no matter what sport it is. Whether it’s rowing, or football, or lacrosse, softball, women’s soccer, or basketball, Army-Navy is the big game of the year. Unfortunately for us, we’ve got to play them twice, so it’s two very emotional games for us. I often joke that I wish we’d play them the first game of the year and the last game of the year, because right in the middle of the season it really taxes your emotions. But also, you feel the entire institution behind you. Number two — and I think this is of equal importance — is as we continue to try and get better in the league, it’s a chance to win a league game. When you want to grow, every game in the league is as important as another one. So a win against Army counts just as much as a win against Bucknell, and a loss against Army counts as much as a loss against Holy Cross, in terms of the standings and your growth in the league. Where this game takes much more significance is in the tradition and the history between our two institutions. We’ve always got to know it’s important.

Q: Have you taken any notice of Army’s resurgence this year?

A: Absolutely, and none of it surprised me. Jim Crews is a great coach number one. Number two, he coaches great kids. Number three, he’s got four recruiting classes under his belt, and they understand the system. They were knocking on the door in a lot of close games last year, and now they’re winning those games. So it does not surprise me what they’re doing. I’m happy for them. I hope they continue to have success except for two games a year. I think it’s more proof that over time, if people are patient and allow these programs to develop, places like Air Force and Army and Navy can be very competitive in Division I basketball.

One Response to “Billy Lange: Verbatim”

  1. John Miller Says:

    Good interview but someone should provide Billy Lange with a fact-checker. Just off the top of my head I noticed a couple of places where he’s giving his team credit for something undeserved:

    1. He says that Navy was the last league team to beat Bucknell before their recent defeat. That is not true at all – Holy Cross beat BU at the end of the 2004-05 season and Lehigh also beat them later in the year. Navy beat BU earlier that year than did HC and LU.

    2. He says that they “held Lafayette to the lowest scoring total in the league in quite some time”, when they yielded only 44 points. Again, not true at all. To begin with, Bucknell held Colgate to 36 points the day before the date on the interview. However, if we assume the date on the article is not the real date of the interview, during the past season there were at least six occasions when league teams scored less than 44 points in league play. Bucknell held Lafayette to 32 points about a year ago, just in case he really meant only Lafayette despite what he said.


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