Seventh Blog: Finally! Some basketball action against another team
Two months of watching workouts and practices and scrimmages has been great. But boy, was I ready to watch the Monarchs play a real game Monday night.
They were ready to play one, too. Frank Hassell: "I've been waiting for this since Bradley (the team's final game last season). We only get fun from competing against each other for so long."
The Monarchs had their hands full with the undersized, but diligent, Barton College Bulldogs on Monday. The final score of 91-62 wasn't indicative of the size of the fight in the dogs.
The Bulldogs won the opening tip and guard Jaren Haley curled around a screen for a three pointer. Then after a Hassell bucket, Haley got free again on the second possession and knocked down another three, from a good four feet beyond the arc.
Cue Blaine Taylor scowl. Welcome to ODU basketball.
"They were pretty prideful in the way they competed," Taylor said of the Bulldogs afterwards. "They gave us a good test, and didn't back down at all."
Eventually, the Monarchs' size and depth wore the smaller Bulldogs down. Coach Taylor was pleased with the effort and defensive rotations Monday, and singled out starting point guard Darius James for settling ODU down when the game got scrambly. "He gives us that kind of steady out there. Settles us down, doesn't turn it over."
The team's second and final exhibition is this coming Saturday against Elizabeth City State.
Now what you just read you could get from Ed Miller at the Pilot (who does an excellent job) or by listening to Monarch radio broadcasts.
This blog is meant to be a play-by-play of what could be a memorable season for ODU, but not necessarily play-by-play from the games. In fact, you'll read about the complex enterprise that is Monarch basketball from completely different perspectives in the blog, from raising the funds to keep the team competitive, to the thankless work done by team managers.
And if you've ever wondered about the vantage point to watch Monarchs basketball when you're a male cheerleader, well, this is the place to come. And don't let their uniforms fool you. They kicked my butt at practice last week.
Three notes from Monday's game, and then we're done.
It was really interesting to watch the team's shootaround before Monday's game. Head Manager Anthony Brammer had put a scouting report together from the little bit of tape of Barton College that was available (including Barton's big win over Lenoir-Rhyne in The Pickle Classic last season).
The team worked on quick passes out of double teams in the low post, without the big men putting the ball on the floor. "You put it down there, those smaller guys will swat away at it," Taylor said.
The scouting report proved to be pretty accurate. Barton played 100 per cent man to man defense, and every player on the court wouldn't hesitate to pop out and shoot three pointers. The Bulldogs hit nine three-pointers on Monday. The Monarchs, only one.
During Sunday's practice, I chatted with Ed Young, who coached redshirt freshman forward Nick Wright at Nansemond River High School in Suffolk.
Wright started playing varsity ball his freshman year of high school, so Young coached him for four years. He's thin now, I pointed out.
"You should have seen him as a freshman. He couldn't do a pushup. He'd go into the weight room and guys would try to put weights on him and lift him," Young said.
But right from the start, Young said Wright had a real verve and personality. He took the team to a tournament his senior year, and by the end of the weekend, Wright knew everyone there. "He talked to referees, he talked to the other teams, the coaches, always smiling. Everyone loved him."
Wright got a nice hand when he entered the game, to see his first action since arriving at ODU last year. He had a good game, too. Wright scored seven points, and grabbed an offensive rebound and dunked it to big cheers in the final two minutes.
"Sometimes when young players get out there, the ball is square and they act like they're on a desert island," Taylor said. "I thought Nick did a nice job."
Sometimes it takes a few weeks of watching the team to notice things like this: ODU could practically field an entire lineup of left-handed players.
Starters James, Marsharee Neely, Hassell and sixth man Kent Bazemore are all lefties.
In fact, James' nickname is "Snake," after Ken Stabler, the first left-handed quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
I asked Frank about the team's surfeit of southpaws. He said it's an advantage sometimes. "I'm not someone like Marsharee, who's truly ambidextrous. But I sometimes can get my shot off early in games, and the guy guarding me might not expect me to go the way that I do, or shoot with the hand that I do."
Brendan O'Hallarn is an employee in the office of University Relations at ODU.
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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