Jan. 3, 2009
20th blog - Back at it, as Monarchs roll into conference play
By Brendan O'Hallarn
Coach Blaine Taylor likes to use a three-word expression when he talks about play in the Colonial Athletic Association - wild and woolly.
Observers spent the two months of the non-conference season sorting the CAA teams into tiers, with Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth and surprising William and Mary being viewed as the consensus top teams.
Then on Saturday, we got handled by George Mason 71-55, and William and Mary was lucky to escape with a win over Hofstra. So much for assumptions.
"Living Like a Monarch" is back for the frantic, two-month conference sprint, after a Christmas break where I spent about 150 hours thinking and talking about basketball.
The Monarchs visit Towson on Monday night, then are back home to host James Madison and Hofstra on Wednesday and Saturday.
Everything builds to the CAA Tournament, the first week of March. The winner goes to the NCAAs, but it's hoped that this year the CAA could receive more than its single, automatic bid to the Big Dance.
This is my first spin through league play as an ODU fanatic, so I thought I'd ask writer Michael Litos, author of the book "Cinderella" about the CAA, for what I can expect. His website, www.caahoops.com is a must-read for any basketball fanatic. Here are Michael's thoughts...
LIVING LIKE A MONARCH "Blaine Taylor likes to use the expression "wild and woolly" to describe a typical year in the CAA. For people (like me) who may be slavishly following the CAA race for the first time, what should I expect?"
MICHAEL LITOS "The thing to expect is a lot of one or two possession games at the under-four media timeout. I'm surprised every year by how many games end up being decided by execution in the last four minutes. That turns them into slugfests and it happens nearly every night. The word coaches use is competitiveness, but to fans it means you will lose two games you think you have no business losing -- the inevitable banana peel game. I believe the 05-06 season was the only one where the teams at the bottom of the standings didn't at least have a modicum of success against the teams at the top. Consult the CAA rulebook for tiebreaker scenarios, because you will need them.
LLAM "People associated with the team, and the conference, say non-conference games set the table for the rest of the year for the whole CAA. What's your appraisal for the CAA's non-conference performance?"
LITOS "The CAA nonconference season, in my mind, is like gaining five yards on first down in football. You did what you were supposed to do and set yourself up for success, but you could've done more (and you still have work to do). In the general sense it was a tremendous success. Multiple major conference wins, high RPIs, and national attention are all a result of great play. I'm a glass-half-full guy but even this week the conference lost three or four one-point games, and George Mason losing to Villanova when they should've won sticks in my mind. However the conference got the big wins it needed and mostly avoided a slew of bad losses. I would've liked to have won a few more of those "toss up" games. And let's be clear about nonconference success: national attention and putting ourselves in position for a second bid to the NCAA tournament. Everything else is conversation.
LLAM "Give me your highlights of the season so far. What about lowlights?
LITOS "Without question it has been watching W&M win. Seeing (coach) Shaka Smart adjust well at VCU. Seeing ODU put it back together after the Texas trip. The ripples of what Trask (Coliseum at UNC-Wilmington) used to be down at the beach. And the wins and the national attention. Definitely the wins. Lowlights? I have to reach for these, because I'm old school geeky and I don't have time for a ton of lamenting. It gets in the way. JMUs injuries stink, because I thought they'd be very good. (Hofstra guard) Corny Vines is one of my favorite players and he is working his way onto the bench. Mason losing to Nova, and heartbreak at Drexel.
LLAM "It seems like William and Mary, VCU and ODU are poised to be the class of the conference this season. A couple of other teams lurk a level below those three Virginia schools. If you had to pick a fourth team to join this year's Big Three, who would it be and why?
LITOS "Easily Northeastern and Hofstra. Charles Jenkins is the kind of player that can carry a team until it figures everything out, and Chaz Williams is a difference-maker as a point guard. If (Hofstra Coach Tom) Pecora can get the big men playing well they can be scary good. Never discount NUs experience -- it matters. Plus, the Huskies have the ingredients -- a star and scorer, height, experience, and they play defense. I said it last year and I think it holds true this year: what they need is an SOB ... the gas can ... a tough kid who will make things happen.
LLAM "Finally, I've heard chatter about bids to the NCAA tournament since before the season even started. It's an annual quest for the CAA to be a multi-bid conference for the NCAAs. What things need to fall in place for the CAA to earn a second (or heaven forbid, a second AND third) bid?"
LITOS "Success in Bracketbusters will play a role. It has been a boon for the CAA in years past. But we'll need something similar to 2005-06--minimize the damage the bottom teams (and to some extent the middle teams) inflict on the top teams. The top four teams being 14-4, 13-5, 13-5, 13-5 won't help. And a little help from other conferences wouldn't hurt. Then again, see answer #1. Don't hold your breath -- just enjoy the season, because it is always a fun two months."
Here are a few inklings from the three games I attended on the break.
I brought my wife's whole extended family to our 81-48 demolition of Charlotte on December 23. My mother-in-law, when the score was 27-8 ODU: "Are you always this good????" Me: "Of course. You need to come to every game!"
One other funny note. My mother-in-law motioned to Big Blue gyrating on the court and asked my wife, "Why is there a lion on the court?" She's lived in Hampton Roads for more than 20 years. She has several relatives with degrees from ODU. Her son-in-law is in public relations at Old Dominion. And my mother-in-law thought "Monarchs" meant the team mascot was a butterfly. We've been teasing her ever since.
When we subdued pesky Duquesne 63-54 on December 30, I sat right across from the Dukes' bench. When Gerald Lee wheeled in traffic and scored two of his season-high 24 points, Duquesne coach Ron Everhart turned to his bench and sort of shrugged at everybody, as if to say "Anyone got any ideas how we can guard this guy?"
Then on Saturday, my wife and I drove to Fairfax with our two small children, decked out in their ODU gear (we're brainwashing them early). The Patriot Center has an old-school arena feel, with rows and rows of seats extending high above the court. Our seats were up high, but that was probably good because we might have got wet when George Mason made it rain in the second half, turning a tie game into a near blowout in about five minutes.
The Patriots' run coincided with my daughter (who just turned four) taking her pompoms and throwing them in the air, repeatedly, while yelling "WHEEEE!" Not my favorite moment of the game. But I guess we can expect some ups and downs in the conference season.
I hope to take Monarch fans along for the ride, writing about ODU basketball from as many perspectives as possible. Last semester I was a team manager for a game, and a courtside spotter for a game. Watch for me in the middle of the Monarch Maniacs one game this semester, and I might have a few other surprises. Someone asked me to describe my blog. Here's what I said. "You know those contests where they pull people out of the stands to shoot baskets at halftime to win prizes? I feel like I was picked out of the stands to do this blog, ONLY I GET TO DO IT ALL SEASON!!!"
Brendan works for ODU's University Relations Office.
Brendan's Blog 46