Friday, December 30, 2011

Winding Down ODU's OOC Play

I was all set to drive to Norfolk today to cover Old Dominion’s game against Missouri for the Zone.  But this morning my car acted up and I’m now sitting at the dealer instead while they fix it.  Thankfully I have my laptop and game notes so I can keep myself busy. 

We’re going to review ODU men’s basketball season to date in a second, but we have a few things to share first.  To start us off, Drew Brees knocked a Miami Dolphins quarterback out of the record books.  While as a Bills fan I fully disclose my irrational bias against all-things-Dolphins, this made me a happy guy to see someone break the record.

Rich Radford of The Virginian-Pilot is composing a series of articles discussing where ODU football stands heading into the 2012 season.  You can read his assessment of the offensive line by clicking here.  I’ll hopefully get to my own analysis of the 2011 season within the next few weeks.  Radford and David Fairbank of The Daily Press did a fantastic job covering ODU football this year.

And now we’ll shift gears to the ODU Monarchs basketball team. 

Blaine Taylor’s team has won half of its first dozen games this season, including a win in its only conference game to date.  Although the record may be a disappointment considering last season’s 9-3 start, the drop-off should not be a surprise.

Three of the four seniors who graduated from last year’s 27-7 team (Ben Finney, Frank Hassell and Darius James) finished literally at the top of the list in career games played by a Monarch; the fourth (Keyon Carter) finished 13th.  That is more than a little experience to replace.

Although this year’s squad also has four seniors on the roster, the quartet had not regularly been put into the leadership role with Finney et al on the team.  It’s not a matter of talent – among the seniors is Kent Bazemore, the 2012 Preseason CAA Player of the Year.  The difference has been that outside of Bazemore, they haven’t been on the floor as more than role players prior to this season.

The prime example of the seniors’ lack of game experience came in overtime against Vermont.  After the Catamounts went up by two points late in OT, Marquel De Lancey brought the ball up the court.  Immediately after passing the timeline, he picked up his dribble with his back to the basket.  He turned to his right to hand the ball off to Bazemore; however, he failed to recognize that the person beside him was not Bazmore but in fact a defender.  Vermont easily took away the ball and went on to win the game. 

That is simply not a play an experienced player would make.  While De Lancey’s a senior who has made his contributions over the years, I cannot recall him ever being on the court in such an in-game situation.  That was a learning experience not afforded the senior until this year. 

None of this is meant to sound like criticism or that the team is having a bad season to date.  Bazemore has averaged more than 13 points and almost five rebounds per game; fellow senior Chris Cooper nearly averages a double-double; and redshirt freshman Dimitri Batten averages ten points on 42.6% shooting. 

In reality there was more adversity from the preseason than I can remember for any recent ODU team.  Consider:

·         The offseason started in heart-breaking manner, as Butler scored as the clock expired to defeat the Monarchs by two points in NCAA tournament.  This was cruelly ironic since the final points came from an offensive rebound against the nationa's best rebounding team.
·         Rising sophomore Josh Hicks left the program.
·         Bazemore had offseason surgery on his foot, though he came back for the start of the season when he wasn’t expected back until December.
·         Nick Wright was suspended the first three games of the season.
·         Richard Ross and Donte Hill were ineligible for the first semester of the season.

It speaks well of Coach Taylor’s ability to have this team at 6-6 considering (1) what was lost to graduation and (2) the roster was incomplete until the tenth game of the season.  Even in most losses, the team has done relatively well.  The Monarchs went toe-to-toe with #2 Kentucky in late November until losing 62-52.  Coming off consecutive losses, ODU took a good Richmond team to overtime on the road before losing 90-82.  That’s not even mentioning its overtime win over South Florida or its first conference win, on the road at Northeastern. 

With the above in mind, it is difficult to judge the ups-and-downs of this season accurately.  With a full complement of players from the very start of the offseason, the Monarchs might have been able to beat Fairfield and/or Vermont.  But it’s of no use to make such speculations. 

The one good thing that writers smarter than I am have noted in the past – Blaine Taylor-coached teams play their best ball in February.  Bazemore should only get better as his conditioning improves.  Ross comes in immediately to provide supreme athleticism and hustle.  Trian Iliadis is too good a shooter to continue hitting on only 21.6% of his three-pointers; he hit two of five three’s last week against VMI.  And in general, the team-defense will continue to improve as it plays more games together. 

Some superlatives of note:

Team MVP – Chris Cooper.  As noted above, the senior from Dumfries, VA, averages nearly a double-double at 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.  Cooper led the way against Kentucky, posting 17 points with 12 boards and essentially pushing the Wildcats around.  He gets the nod over Bazemore for how the team’s performance changes when he’s not on the floor.  The senior has fouled out in four of the team’s twelve games, and the Monarchs are clearly a better team when he hasn’t been in foul trouble.

Best Team Performance – At Northeastern University.  Road wins in CAA conference-play are treasured, and this game showed the potential of the team.  Cooper chipped in another 17-12; Bazemore added 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists; and Nick Wright scored a dozen points.  Iliadis had a good all-around game with seven points, five assists and two rebounds. 

Worst Team Performance – Against Vermont.  The Monarchs looked like the better team much of the first half and took a 30-24 lead into the half.  But Cooper was in foul trouble, and no one other than Wright could score in the second half – almost literally.  For the game the junior forward provided 24 points and ten rebounds on 9-12 shooting, much of which came after halftime.  The rest of the team hit 13 of 53 shots (24.5%), which includes only six of 38 by the four seniors.  Lastly, the team hit only three of 18 three-point attempts.  They got out to a comfortable lead, but then played like a team still learning how to win.

Best Individual Performance – Nick Wright.  As mentioned above, Wright was the go-to guy for Old Dominion against Vermont.  Anyone who watched him his first two years knew that the young man provides energy, defense and rebounding.  But he had never showed such offensive prowess before this game.  The 24 points tripled his previous career high of eight (accomplished twice).  He converted two late free throws to force overtime.  Honorable mention goes to Batten for his play against East Carolina, in which he scored 18 points and posted nine rebounds as a guard.

Good Times along Hampton Boulevard.  Monarch fans deserve recognition themselves.  Last season, ODU’s average attendance was 7,745; this broke the previous record of 7,492 more than 30 years prior.  This season the average attendance is down a bit but still strong at 7,312.  This figure should rise with expected sellouts when Missouri and the CAA rivals come to town.  Virginia Commonwealth leads the conference with 7,631 fans per game; the next-closest average to ODU is George Mason (3,782).  Considering this year’s high attendance follows a season in which 19,818 saw seven Monarch football games (a sellout in each game), ODU fans should take a bow for their overall support.

Keys to CAA Play.  There are three keys for Old Dominion to succeed as the conference schedule starts in full-swing.  The good news for the Monarchs is that most other teams have shown vulnerabilities this season.  The only 2011-2012 team that comes close to last year’s ODU/GMU/VCU/Hofstra group is VCU, although Drexel has played exceptionally well since Chris Fouch returned to the rotation and got into a groove.

1.       Improved outside shooting.  Last year the Monarchs hit 32.9% of their three-point attempts, which is on the low-side.  Old Dominion made up for its outside shooting, though, as it led the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.7).  This year ODU is shooting worse (26.7% of their three’s) and is not as good of a rebounding unit (fifth in the conference at plus-3.1).  The presence of Ross should help improve the rebounding margin but he has not displayed a consistent outside shot.  (Mind you, he’s played only three games.)  The team needs Iliadis (11 of 51 3’s) and Bazemore (14 of 61) to improve their low rates from outside.

2.       Cooper’s Presence.  Blaine Taylor has shown an ability to recruit and coach post players who produced at a high level.  Chris Cooper follows Frank Hassell, who followed Gerald Lee, who followed Valdas Vasylius and Arnaud Dahi, who followed Alex Loughton.  In out-of-conference play, Cooper has displayed the skills to at least be mentioned with those players.  However, he fouls out once every three games (he currently average 3.8 fouls/game) and the team’s next post option is Nick Wright.  While Wright has produced this season, he does not have the physical presence of Cooper.  Jason Pimentel showed potential early as well, but he has not played the last three contests.  The less Cooper is in foul trouble, the more the Monarchs will win.

3.       The Play of the Newcomers.  If Batten ends the season at his current average of 10.0 PPG, it would be the highest average for a freshman Monarch under Blaine Taylor.  Dahi holds that honor as he finished with 9.0 PPG in the ’03-’04 season.  Coach Taylor acknowledged that Ross led the team in hustle plays his very first game (against Central Florida).  Hill adds another threat on the wings to take the pressure off Bazemore and averages more than six PPG.  While Batten must continue his strong play, Ross and Hill must assert their talents into the team without unbalancing the team’s chemistry on the court.  Nine games is a long time for the other players on the roster to familiarize themselves with each other in the flow of a game.

In the last five years, Old Dominion has finished seasons with win totals of 27 (twice), 25 and 24.  The outlier in that stretch was ’07-’08, when the team finished 18-16.  That year’s senior class included Drew Williamson, Brandon Johnson and Brian Henderson.  Will this team finish with at least 20 wins?  The talent is there.  The key is how well the individual talent can meld now that it's finally been combined.

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