If the ODU Monarchs men's basketball team was a hand in a game of cards, it'd include a bunch of face cards -- representing the team's giant front line -- a straight-flush of fast, tough guards, and an ace - preseason conference co-player of the year Gerald Lee.
Oh, and one joker. That'd be the guy who bugs the coaching staff to let him do drills with the team (me).
At practice today, I watched the blue team in the scrimmage run four straight plays through Lee in the high post. Play #1 - Lee pump-faked, then took one dribble and laid the ball in the hoop Play #2 - Lee played a two-man game with Ben Finney, finding his teammate for a wide open three Play #3 - Lee wheeled and dropped a 17-foot jumper with a hand in his face Play #4 - Lee to Finney again. Three pointer. Game over; the white team was on the end line running a suicide.
The Monarchs have sky-high hopes for this season, and much of the optimism stems from the explosive growth in Lee's game. But like almost every player who dons the blue and white, Lee struggled with the speed of Division I basketball when he arrived in Norfolk four years ago from Uusikaupunki, Finland.
The two seniors on the Monarchs this season, Lee and shooting guard Marsharee Neely, personify what's possible with the effort Coach Blaine Taylor's players put forth. "Marsharee Neely has grown more in our four years than just about any player we've ever had here," says associate head coach Jim Corrigan. "His first year, he was struggling with the transition to university ball, he was struggling academically.
"Four years later, he's scheduled to graduate on time, and he's become a major contributor to this basketball team." Neely, who is from Greensboro, NC, now considers the younger players on the team his "little brothers." He's especially close to the two other North Carolinians on the team - freshman shooter Josh Hicks, and sophomore small forward Kent Bazemore.
Neely and Bazemore play on the same team in most scrimmages, and have a real smooth chemistry. They seem to know where the other is on the court without having to talk. That sort of fits the personality of both Neely and Lee. While the two seniors are unquestionably leaders on the team, they're not the vocal ones. That job typically falls to juniors Ben Finney and Darius James.
"We have people to who like to talk more, but with me and Gerald, we like to show it," Neely said. "Everybody has their different way of being a leader."
Lee said he likes to offer advice to the younger players in a one-on-one setting. He's done a lot of advising to freshman center Anton Larsen, who's doing exactly what Lee did four years ago - trying to adjust to the speed of the U.S. college game after crossing the Atlantic from Denmark. "I'm the only one who's experienced what he's experiencing right now," said Lee. "He's learning very quickly. He's doing a good job."
Both players are ready to take on people other than their teammates in basketball action, and they're comfortable with the Monarchs' anointment as the team to beat in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"We believe in what the coaches are saying. We're predicted to be No. 1. We believe in the hype, we just want to show everyone," Neely said. "It's a good feeling (being favored in the CAA), but I don't know if there's any pressure out of that," Lee said. "We expect big things out of this team, we just have to go out there and play basketball."
The two seniors are the only Monarchs with memories of playing in the NCAA tournament, during ODU's last trip in 2007. "It was a beautiful experience," Neely said. "The police escorting us like we were an NBA team. There were a million fans watching us warm up. It was beautiful. It was a totally different experience.
"This year, I want to get out of the first round, I want to step over that milestone." The next step in that journey is the team's first exhibition game, November 2 against Barton College.
Brendan O'Hallarn is an employee in the office of University Relations at ODU.
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