P> March 4, 2010 Thursday - 4:15 p.m. - Previewing "Pillow Fight" Friday
A bunch of Old Dominion University fans make the annual trip to the Richmond Coliseum for Friday's first-round games of the CAA Championship. It's a nerve-wracking day for fans of the participating teams. Here's what makes it fun for ODU: We've never actually played on Friday.
Since the CAA has expanded to 12 teams, necessitating the extra round of games, Old Dominion has never finished worse than fourth in the league standings. The top four teams after the regular season earn a bye to Saturday's quarter-finals. The Friday games have been dubbed the "pillow fight" because they feature the bottom eight teams in the standings.
This year's Pillow Fight Friday has the added bonus of featuring our biggest rivals, Virginia Commonwealth University. I've talked to a bunch of ODU fans who can't wait to appear at Friday's VCU game, cheering for Delaware. That's the second of four first-round games. Here's the full slate.
Noon, Towson vs. UNC-Wilmington I've seen both of these teams live once. Towson hung tough with us when they came to ODU late in the season, and with only seven players dressed that night. I was secretly hoping, as fouls piled up, that they'd have to finish the game with four guys, like the Hickory Huskers did during one game in "Hoosiers." I drove to Wilmington with a car-full of Monarchs fans to see us win at Trask Coliseum in January. After watching Benny Moss coach in person, I'm not surprised he got fired. What a sourpuss.
2:30 p.m. Delaware vs. VCU
Let's be honest, Delaware will not win this game. They're a last-place team playing a Rams team that (having seen them play us tough, twice) I can't believe managed to lose seven games in conference this season. VCU is on our side of the draw, so I hope the Fighting Blue Hens can make them work just a little bit, to tire them out.
6 p.m. Georgia State vs. Hofstra
This game features a Georgia State team that gave ODU everything it could handle last week in Atlanta (actually leading by three midway through the second half) with a Hofstra team that has come on strong, recently beating Northeastern in Boston on Senior Day. The winner plays Northeastern. I'm sure the Huskies are Georgia State fans for the day
8 p.m. James Madison vs. Drexel
Likely the best match-up of the day. JMU came within a missed three-point shot of being the only team to beat us at the Ted all season. Yet they've struggled all season with injuries, inconsistency and idiocy. They recently had a reserve player suspended for throwing a snowball at a snowplow driver. We clobbered Drexel in Norfolk in our only meeting of the year, but the Dragons finished with 11 wins, including toppling Northeastern twice and VCU once. Sitting next to excitable Drexel coach Bruiser Flint during our game made for a fun afternoon. The two coaches are complete opposites in their sideline demeanor. JMU coach Matt Brady looks so bored, it's like he's waiting for a bus. Bruiser Flint looks like he's hijacking one.
The fun starts tonight for the tournament. I'm off to Richmond in the next half-hour or so for the CAA Championship banquet. I'll have a blog entry on the CAA's year-end awards tomorrow morning.
March 3, 2010
33rd Blog: It's tournament time - CAA Tournament live blog
By Brendan O'Hallarn
Thursday, 8 a.m.
Sometimes, it seems like the CAA Tournament has gotten here in a flash. Other times, I think what a long, up-and-down ride it's been following the team this year.
Regardless, it's here - the weekend-long event that, if we win it, will catapult us into March Madness, otherwise known as the NCAA Tournament. There has been some speculation that ODU will earn a spot even if we don't win the CAA Tournament final on Monday night. We hope we don't have to find that out.
After a short practice, the team leaves early this afternoon for Richmond. Thursday night is the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball banquet. Awards for Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and the league's all-star teams will be announced.
Monarchs star center Gerald Lee is in line for a spot on the league all-star team. And if sophomore wonder-guard Kent Bazemore doesn't get some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, then people haven't been watching the same league I have this season.
I've only lived in the region for a couple of years, but even as a new ODU employee, I was completely wrapped up in the Monarchs as they made it to the semifinals of the 2009 tourney.
Obviously, this isn't coach Blaine Taylor's first rodeo. "I've been in that spot numerous times, so I'm pretty comfortable being there," he says. "But I often have to sit back and reflect on what it's like for an 8-year-old kid sitting in the stands, what it's like for our players. What it's like for parents of our seniors, what it's like for our students, my staff that has put so much work in.
I've been down that trail so many times. It's somewhere where I've been, but new territory for a lot of people."
Practices this week have been short, crisp and competitive. On Monday, the team ran a fast-break drill, emphasizing taking the ball to the basket hard, and rebounding with ferocity. Then the players each found their shooting "spots" on the floor and stroked jump shot after jump shot.
I watched Josh Hicks, a recruit from North Carolina who's one of ODU's two redshirts this year, knock down 10 3-pointers in a row. At one point, five straight shots hit the same spot on the very back of the rim and dropped in, barely disturbing the net. In fact, it was a whole gym's worth of good shooting, as the guys were hitting them from everywhere. Coach Taylor stalked back and forth along the center line, making sure his charges were shooting with good form and focus.
Tournament play is difficult, because you can't take the time you normally would to prepare for an opponent, breaking down specific film of their offense. And it's a lot different to prepare for, say, William and Mary's matchup zone defense than it is to prep for VCU's relentless full-court press.
"What you do in the course of a season is prepare for opponents, but a lot of times you're preparing fundamentals, basics, rules, strategies that should be a quick turn into a next game," Taylor says. "When you get into tournament settings, you've got to be able to go from opponent, to opponent to opponent and rely on your playbook, rely on all the things you've been working on every year, and not have to reinvent the wheel every day."
Bazemore has had a breakout season for the Monarchs, becoming more confident on offense each game, while continuing to be his usual athletic, disruptive presence on the defensive end. The product of Bertie, N.C., has a score to settle with the CAA Tournament.
"I'm kinda anxious. I've got to calm myself down," Bazemore says. "I feel like I've got to redeem myself from last year. I really didn't play up to the par that I should have to help my team win last year. So it's going to be big to come out this year, the second time, to help my team win."
It's senior guard Marsharee Neely's fourth tournament. Despite earning an NCAA berth with the Monarchs in his freshman year, Neely has never been on a team that has "cut down the nets" after winning in Richmond.
When I first met Marsharee in September, he talked at length that this team liked being thought of as the favorite in the CAA, and that the team expected to be here - in first place going into the CAA Tournament.
"I'm used to it. I've had pressure on me off and on the court all my life. That's the type of person I am, I'm motivated to accomplish these goals," he says.
Neely's year has been sort of like the entire team's - some early success, some rocky stretches in the middle, and looking to finish strong. A senior, Neely has been in the difficult position of watching his friend and younger teammate Bazemore assume his spot in the starting lineup.
But last Saturday, when we knocked off VCU to clinch first place in the CAA, Marsh was the happiest guy in the building. Still wearing the mesh from the basket the team had cut down around his neck, Neely signed hundreds of autographs for kids after the game.
"I was extremely happy," he says. "At the end, I was talking to my boys, and saying, 'C'mon now. I'm right here. Y'all owe me this. You've gotta give it to me.' Kent looked at me and said 'I got you, man.' He hit a big free throw for us, and Frank (Hassell) did the same thing. They both hugged me and embraced me and said, 'That was for you.'"
Neely and Lee will play their final CAA Tournament, starting Saturday against the winner of Towson and UNC-Wilmington. They're hoping to finally cut down those nets in Richmond, too.
Brendan O'Hallarn works in public relations for Old Dominion University
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