After posting eight straight 20-win seasons, could the Old Dominion Monarchs be staring at a 20-loss campaign? Thirteen games in, ODU's men's basketball team has just two victories to show for its efforts.
Thank goodness one of the two wins was something to crow about as the Monarchs went to Richmond three days before Christmas and knocked off the University of Virginia. But on Saturday, wanting to build upon that and carry at least a modest two-game winning streak into tonight's game at home against James Madison, the Monarchs let a 10-point lead slip away in the closing minutes and fell 55-54 to Fairfield at the Constant Center.
Up to now, it has been an exasperating season for the Monarchs, who for the first time in Blaine Taylor's 11 years at the helm do not have a go-to guy in crunch time.
Even when Taylor arrived and took over a program which was down on its luck, he inherited Ricardo Marsh and went to him when the going got tough.
Throughout the years, he had go-to guys like Alex Loughton, Isaiah Hunter, Valdas Vasylius, Arnaud Dahi, Gerald Lee, Frank Hassell and, last year, Kent Bazemore.
What he'd give right now to just have one of those fellas.
Instead, right now, the Monarchs are "a comedy of errors." Those are Blaine Taylor's words. And they are appropriate in so many ways.
"A Comedy of Errors" was William Shakespeare's first play, and it wasn't very good. It was an ensemble cast marching through a script full of slapstick humor, which mirrors how ODU played in the last seven minutes against Fairfield. Nobody rose to the occasion. Instead, every player on ODU's roster in those final minutes allowed defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory.
A play on words, you say? That's what Shakespeare was best at. But Shakespeare was also about strong lead characters - MacBeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and my personal favorite, Richard III - who and always attempted to and often rose to the occasion.
In losing on Saturday, the Monarchs came up on the short end at the Constant Center for the seventh time this season. They are 1-7 at home, setting a Constant Center record for home losses in a season before they could even escape the calendar year. With nine more home games remaining, there's still a chance to post a winning record at home. But the chance is slim.
There are so many Shakespearean quotes that would be appropriate at a time like this. However, I'm the kind of guy who plucks the less-used passage and I'll do it again this time.
Said MacBeth: "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."
Still, if there is to be a turnaround, it must most certainly begin tonight when the Monarchs host James Madison. The Dukes and Monarchs have always been fierce rivals and the series has had its classic moments. Just mention the name Kent Culuko and the toes of many ODU fans would curl up like the Wicked Witch of the East's did when Dorothy's house landed on her.
It's that painful. But it can also be that rewarding when ODU wins.
So here come the Dukes into the Constant Center, followed by Delaware on Saturday. And the Monarchsinstead of plotting a plan of attack are instead having an internal moment of self analysis as they try gamely to figure out how they can get better rather than truly focusing on how to beat the other guy.
It is what it is, a terrible start to a season. And yet, there is chance for new life tonight and Taylor knows it.
With January upon us, the Monarchs have a chance to turn the page, at least the page of the calendar. There is a chance for a new start. Huddled in the bowels of the Constant Center late Saturday night, long after the final horn had sounded, Taylor leaned against a wall and reflected on what has happened with these Monarchs so far and what could happen in the not-so-distant future.
And he flipped from Shakespeare to Homer.
"This season is like The Iliad and The Odyssey," Taylor said.
I understood what he was saying. One game you're taking on the Cyclops, the next you're dealing with a big ol' Trojan Horse (and if you don't know your Homer, shame on you for never cracking the spine of those books and relying on the Cliff Notes).
To break it down, Taylor's program has a world of problems to deal with:
- They are young, typically starting a freshman-freshman backcourt.
- The schedule is too tough. So many nights, the Monarchs have faced teams with 1,000-point career scorers. "I've never had to face so many teams with so many veteran players," Taylor said. "I never thought we'd have to seriously think about who we were scheduling in terms of how experienced the other team is, but this season it seems like every scouting report we put together I'm looking down and going, `Wait a minute, this guy has been playing there forever. Meanwhile, I'm looking at our roster and we've got two kids coming off concussions (Keenan Palmore and Nick Wright)."
- Forward Richard Ross is playing with a cast on his right forearm (and he's right-handed).
- Because the school's athletic programs are switching to Conference USA after this season, the Monarchs aren't eligible for conference titles. "We, the women's team, wrestling, field hockey, we're all in the same boat," Taylor said. "We're taking our turns in the barrel."
Would that be the "fish in the barrel" barrel or the barrel that goes over Niagara's falls? Neither is very appealing and Taylor laughed at the question. But what he said hit home: It's a tough year to be making a transition from one conference to the other. There is no ultimate reward at the end of the season, no real chance for March Madness glory, no opportunity to joyously hoist the hardware in Richmond as Taylor's teams have done on three separate occasions.
The Monarchs are left now to win the battle, with little hope of ultimately winning the war. But therein resides the hidden beauty of this situation.
In years past when the Monarchs would reach this point of the year, ODU's hand-wringing fans would typically be looking back and saying to themselves, "Oh, that loss against (insert team) might come back to haunt us if we're on the bubble come tournament time."
The bubble has burst and fans can either be miserable about the state of affairs or can rationalize that these three freshmen guards - Aaron Bacote, Deion Clark and Palmore - who are seeing all of this early playing time will only get better over the next couple of seasons and are fun to watch.
"Our two red-shirt freshmen (6-foot-9 Ekene Anachebe and shooting guard Ambrose Mosley) are making great strides in practice and the three kids we signed for this fall are having really, really good senior seasons," Taylor said.
Success, it seems, is going to take a while with this bunch and when it will happen is kind of like trying to guess when Taylor's mustache will fill back in. That's right, after shaving the mustache last season, he's growing it back. I asked how long it might take.
"I don't know," he said. "I grew the last one in the third grade."
The sense of humor remains, although it's more of a chore right now than it's been in the past, kind of like this season.
"It's not as if we aren't competitive," Taylor said. "It isn't as if we don't have a chance to win when we go out there. We do."