Minium: Winning Conference USA title at home would be sweet, but players say winning at UTSA would be sweeter
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
Winning Old Dominion’s first regular-season basketball title in Conference USA next week during ODU’s final home game against Southern Miss would be sweet.
Coaches and players would love to celebrate with their families, fans and ODU students. The Ted undoubtedly would explode with noise.
But as the Monarchs departed Tuesday night for the 3-hour flight to San Antonio, they made it pretty clear that winning at UTSA’s Convocation Center Thursday night at 8 would be a lot sweeter.
First, ODU wants to avenge a 74-73 loss at UTSA on Jan 26, when the Monarchs blew an 18-point lead they held with just over four minutes left, and missed three potential game-winning shots in the final nine seconds.
“We haven’t had to remind our kids about what happened that night,” coach Jeff Jones said. “They remember.”
More importantly, the victory would give the Monarchs the Conference USA regular-season title, ODU’s first since the Monarchs won the 2010 Colonial Athletic Association crown.
ODU vs. UTSA, Thursday, 8 p.m.
CBS Sports Network
The title would guarantee ODU a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, regardless of what happens in the Conference USA tournament.
And while that’s not the NCAA tournament, the paucity of at-large bids for mid-major schools mean an NIT berth is worth a lot more than it used to be.
“There are big-name schools in the NIT,” senior guard Ahmad Caver said. “Games are on ESPN. You can make a name for yourself in the NIT.”
Caver and backcourt mate B.J. Stith are seniors whose only postseason play was winning the Vegas 8 tournament in 2016. Asked if he thinks that counts as a legitimate postseason experience, Caver said: “No, it doesn’t.
“We all want to play in the NCAA tournament. That’s always been our goal.
ODU basketball coach Jeff Jones says his Monarchs must win their next five games and get to the Conference USA final to become an NCAA tournament bubble team.
"But If for whatever reason that doesn’t happen, then we would love to play in the NIT.”
Thursday's game will give ODU a rare opportunity to shine on national TV. The game is being broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, which is available in 57 million cable households. It's not ESPN, which reaches about 84 million homes, but the network has a wide reach among sports aficionados.
Winning Thursday night would also keep ODU on a path that could propel them to the NCAA tournament bubble. ODU has improved to No. 74 in the NCAA NET rankings after hovering in the 80s in recent weeks. That’s the new ranking system the NCAA tournament will use to dole out at-large bids.
Conceivably, if ODU (22-6 overall, 12-3 C-USA) wins its final three regular-season games, and then wins a couple of games in the Conference USA tournament, that might place ODU among the eight or ten schools that ESPN and others say are on the bubble.
Whether that’s true or not depends on who you ask. Most prognosticators think even at 27-7, ODU won’t make it. You’d need to be in the top 40 or 50 as a mid major to have any chance at an at-large bid, and it’s difficult to see ODU improving that much.
Yet one online ranking service, teamrankings.com gives ODU an 87.6 chance of an at-large bid if the Monarchs end at 27-7, so who really knows.
Trying to figure out computer rankings can fry your brain.
Some other teams in the top 60 make you wonder about the NET rankings. Yes, Penn State has played a difficult schedule, but how can the Nittany Lions be No. 59 with an 11-16 record? Wofford (24-6), from the Southern Conference, a league comparable to C-USA, is No. 20.
Lipscomb (22-6), from the Atlantic Sun Conference is No. 46, even though the A-SUN is generally rated among the bottom third of Division I leagues. Most rankings list Conference USA as No. 13.
ODU senior B.J. Stith has never played in the NIT or NCAA tournament and says he dearly wants to in his final season.
While not naming teams, Jones has also wondered about some teams that are ranked much higher than ODU.
'The bottom line is that for any NCAA speculation to be meaningful, the Monarchs must win at UTSA.
“They know what’s at stake and they know where we’re sitting,” he said of his players and the regular-season title.
“It’s a big deal. We all want to reach that goal.”
UTSA (15-12, 9-5), hasn’t played since Feb. 16, when the Roadrunners lost at Louisiana Tech, 72-67. That's one of the many quirks produced by C-USA’s bonus play, which pits the top 5 teams in a 4-game round-robin.
Will the Roadrunners be refreshed or rusty because of the time off? That’s difficult to say.
Officials expect a near-capacity crowd of the UTSA Convocation Center, which seats 4,080. Although it’s not the most difficult atmosphere in the league – the Roadrunners have averaged 1,060 fans per game – ODU is winless in three games at UTSA.
“We took our foot off the pedal,” Jones said when asked to explain how his team lost after leading by 18 last month.
“We had them on the ropes and could have extended the league. Instead of that, we allowed them to have a chance. And they took advantage of those opportunities and they came marching through.”
UTSA coach Steve Henson has done a good job of building a winner at UTSA, which finished 20-15 and played in the collegeinsider.com postseason tournament last season.
Jhivvan Jackson (22.8) and Keaton Wallace (21.2) are among the league's top three scorers.
"It's a tough place to play," Jones said, "because they have very good players."
Contact Minium: firstname.lastname@example.org