It was March of 2002 and Blaine Taylor had just finished his
first season as the head coach at Old Dominion. Playing in an old field
house on campus and drawing sparse crowds, the Monarchs won seven
Colonial Athletic Association games and finished the season with all of
Taylor called it a miracle.
To say things are a little different on Old Dominion's campus in
Norfolk, Va., would be a significant understatement. When the Monarchs
host Towson tonight, the game will be played in the Ted Constant
Convocation Center, a $70 million, 8,600-seat facility that opened in
the fall of 2002.
The building isn't the only thing that has been upgraded at ODU
either. With a 19-3 overall record (9-1 in the CAA), Old Dominion is on the cusp of its
first 20-victory season since 1999 and the Monarchs have a reasonable
shot at their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1997.
While ODU is still a place where the women's basketball program has
had more success than the men, people have begun to take notice of
Taylor's team. When the Monarchs recently hosted UNC Wilmington, every
seat in the convocation center -- a building thought highly enough of to
host a women's NCAA regional a year ago -- was sold.
The most amazing thing about the Monarchs? A lot of
people thought this team -- which has only one senior on the roster --
might be a year away from being really good. If that's the case, nobody is going to want to play Old Dominion a year from now.
This season's edition has that desired combination of being good offensively and defensively. A look at the CAA statisitics shows how impressive Old Dominion has been this season. The Monarchs lead the conference in (take a deep breath): scoring defense, scoring margin, field-goal percentage defense, blocked shots, assists, steals, turnover margin, assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive rebounds. ODU is also second in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage defense.
"A lot of our fans probably thought this sort of thing was a
year away," said Taylor, who came to ODU after working for Mike
Montgomery at Stanford. "We had one of the youngest, if not the youngest
teams in the country last year.
"We're not taking anything for granted. We know how fleeting a
picture it can be."
How Old Dominion has moved up the Colonial standings isn't
really a secret. Taylor and his staff have pretty much followed the same
model many mid-major programs have used. Since arriving in Norfolk,
finding quality players has been a priority. It's a task that has taken
the Monarchs coaches literally around the world.
Alex Loughton, Old Dominion's best player, is a 6-9
forward/center from Perth, Australia. Arnaud Dahi, a 6-7 forward, is
from the Ivory Coast. Valdas Vasylius, usually Taylor's first man off
the bench, is Lithuanian. Reserve center Sam Harris is a 7-3 native of
Tasmania, while another reserve, Janko Mrksic is from Canada.
"I wouldn't have predicted the international flavor," said
Taylor, who has also landed several players from within a short drive of
Norfolk. "But the school is set up well for that. We have about 1,200
international students and our women's team has had success with them as
well (including WNBA player Ticha Penicherio).
While guard Isaiah Hunter, who hails from the more traditional
locale of Charlotte, leads Old Dominion in scoring, Loughton is the
Monarchs' go-to player. The CAA preseason player of the year repeatedly
found himself in foul trouble early in the season, but has been better
of late, recording five double-doubles in the past eight games.
That said, the Monarchs have great balance. The super-fast
Hunter (13.4 points per game) is the only ODU player in the top 10 in
the Colonial in scoring, but the Monarchs do have three players in the
Prior to Saturday's loss at Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion
looked as if it would have a chance to run the table in the CAA. While
there are a couple of significant tests left -- at UNC Wilmington on
Saturday and the rematch with VCU a week later -- an Old Dominion team
currently in the 30s in the RPI doesn't have another game with a top 100 RPI team on its schedule.
That leaves the Monarchs in something of a dangerous position
for the postseason should they not win the Colonial tournament. Because
as impressive as ODU's record could be -- Taylor's team could end up with
28 or 29 victories and not secure the Colonial's automatic berth -- it
seems unlikely its RPI can increase much.
It isn't out of the question that Old Dominion could be this
season's Utah State -- a team left out of the tournament despite a great
record. Taylor has been through this before while coaching at Montana.
Because while Taylor took the Grizzlies to two NCAA tournaments in seven
years there as a head coach, he had three other 20-win seasons in which
the Grizzlies went to the NIT once and watched both tournaments from
their couch twice.
"What am I supposed to do? Go to my players and say, 'Let's talk
about not winning the conference tournament?' " Taylor said. "There's a
bid up for grab (at the tournament). When I was at Stanford, we knew a
lot of times in February that we had a bid.
"But all that stuff's out of your control."
Still, it certainly beats a 12-win "miracle" season.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.