By Michael Lewis
After waiting patiently for weeks, Danny Nee's ship has finally come in.
Actually, make that ships.
Several members of the U.S. Merchant Marine men's basketball team returned from their Sea Year duty earlier this month and came back in time to practice and prepare for the 2011-2012 season, which begins against SUNY-Maritime at home at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night.
No one was more welcoming that Nee, the Mariners' men's basketball coach.
"Everyone is back" he said. "Some of them have practiced only four, five or six times," Nee said. "Having them back is huge. You get depth."
The Academy is one of the five federal service academies. In addition to being part of the academic and athletic programs at the school, All Midshipmen have regimental and sea-year responsibilities. All students work aboard ships as officers during parts of their third class (sophomore) and second class (junior) years.
Players usually return in October. This year they came back later than usual, Nee said.
"We're ready to play," he said. "It's a little early for us. We might adjust the schedule next year and try to open up at the weekend instead of the middle of the week just to get a few more days of practices, our players came back so late."
Nee himself know what it is like to get a late start. He is back for his second year at the helm of the Mariners, but he felt this is his real first season. He was hired only 10 days prior to the pre-season. He succeeded John Krikorian, who left the school to coach at Christopher Newport University.
"I had no preparation," Nee said of a 14-12 season. "I had to hire a staff. That first year really was a learning process with the coaching staff and the players learning a new system. It was difficult. Now, there is at least a familiarity. We have recruited two players. They know us. The veterans coming back at least have a feel for my personality and where we're going.
"Now, I really feel this is our first year. That's how I feel. And the kids feel that way. This is a start with coach Nee's start, coach Nee's system. Coach Nee. There is an identity. Before it was almost a hit or miss. We adjusted throughout the whole year."
Nee will face a challenge in trying to replace a pair of 1,000-point scorers in forward Matt Hueber and guard Tom Izzo and a team leader in forward Richard Roach.
"We don't have that. So, it's going to be kind of hit or miss," Nee said. "It's going to take November or December to figure that all out."
Nee later added: "We will play our best basketball in January."
Nee expects to rely on the senior threesome of 6-0 guard Kevin Kerr (Oakdale, N.Y.) and forwards Patrick Farrell, 6-5, and Denver Effland, 6-4. He also will be looking for some help from sophomore guards Jeffrey Mark (6.8 ppg) of Elmont, N.Y., and Farace (5.5 ppg), 5-11, and 6-5 sophomore forward Buck (6.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg.). Sergio, a center-forward from Patchogue, is the tallest Mariner returning at 6-8, along with 6-8 forwards Matt Bullard (Dartmouth, Mass.) and Matt McMahon (Chesapeake, Va.).
"We'rv got a nice rotation," Nee said.
Nee added that a pleasant surprise has been Bryan Lynch, who "is shooting the ball really well."
"I think we'll be OK," Nee said.
Nee and Mariners basketball fans will find that out, beginning on Tuesday night.
Photo: Mike Farace, one of several Mariners who recently completed their Sea Year, has not had a lot of time to practice with his teammates.