It was the first day of my International Marketing class, a business elective I took my senior year at Old Dominion. With a last name that starts with “S,” I typically didn’t pay close attention to names that were read aloud early in roll call. But one of the names Dr. Ford announced early did indeed catch my attention when he spoke it:
“Marina Di Giacomo.”
Wait, what? Marina Di Giacomo (pronounced “de-JOCK-eh-mo”)? THE Marina Di Giacomo was in my class?
Looking back on things it of course made sense, as she was an upperclassman like myself. It didn’t hurt that she hailed from Argentina and was taking an international marking class. Nevertheless, your ears tend to perk up when you hear the name of one of the greatest athletes to ever play in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Let’s fastforward more than a decade to the present day, at which point ODU has announced its plans to move from the CAA to Conference USA effective July 1, 2013. The announcement brought out an unexpected mix of reactions – it was not one of singularly “WE’RE GOING TO PLAY FBS FOOTBALL!” (which, in full disclosure, was one of the reactions). It took some time to find the appropriate angle from which to share my full thoughts on the move.
(To read my football-centric thoughts on the move, click on the link for the story I wrote for Saturday Blitz.)
In this post I’ll share my favorite memories of Old Dominion in the CAA (as well as those of some esteemed fans other of schools). They are basketball-centric since the Monarchs have only played three seasons of football, none of which occurred when I was attending classes. This is the only way I can paint a picture of whether I think ODU’s move to C-USA will be the right move or not.
So, what WILL decide whether the change in conferences was correct or not?
Well…it’s all about Di Giacomo.
I can remember watching a few CAA conference tournament games in the early 90’s, when Odell Hodge was leading the way for the Monarchs. This was in the middle of Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills making four straight Super Bowls, so my primary sport of choice was football. Still, my sister was a student at ODU at the time so I naturally followed the basketball Monarchs.
|Gratuitous Jim Kelly picture.|
With that said, these are my earliest memories of college basketball. I simply didn't watch the sport until I was in high school. I’m doing as much of this post by memory as I can, intentionally not searching online for specifics. It’ll feel more authentic this way.
I can’t remember too many specific games with Hodge. I just remember seeing him make so many point-blank shots at the rim, wondering why he wasn’t dunking like NBA players. The CAA didn’t have anyone like him at the time (though I’m well aware that David Robinson’s Navy teams preceded Hodge, they were out of the conference by Hodge’s days in the 90’s).
|Odell Hodge, one of Old Dominion's all-time greats.|
The Kent Caluko shot occurred, and while we won’t rehash the specifics of the shot, it was the shot that made me hate James Madison more than any other CAA school. In present day I have a much better grip on the deeper rivalry between Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth, but at that time it made the Dukes Enemy #1. It helped that this was they heyday for Lefty Drissell at JMU, and both teams were annually battling for first place in the conference.
Now seems like an appropriate time to get some input from Mat, the guy who operates VCURamnation.com. Serious fans of either school could go on for hours about the rivalry and why they hate the other school. I have my own thoughts but don’t want to make this post focus on any particular rival.
The only thought I will share is that it’s appropriate that if one school were to leave the CAA, then it’s better that the other one did as well. It adds another dimension to the rivalry – Rams fans can claim that they got into a better basketball conference and didn’t get “left behind” without the other. Monarch fans can claim that they got into an FBS conference and didn’t get “left behind” without the other. Win-win.
Here's Mat's perspective.
Here's Mat's perspective.
As a VCU fan, I'm very excited about my team's future in the Atlantic 10, a move I was very much in favor of, and as a basketball only school, a move I think my Rams had to make. With that said, I just CAN'T BELIEVE not only will WE not be in a conference with two of our biggest rivals in ODU and Mason, but NONE of the three will share a conference starting in 2013. After years of CAA domination and rivalry, that is numbing to me. Let's not kid ourselves though, those rivalries, while taking a hit in frequency, will live on. As a VCU fan who's watched our crosstown rivalry with UofR survive realignment, I'm confident these rivalries will remain intact for years to come, until who knows, perhaps we find ourselves sharing a conference once more (I'm talking to you in particular George Mason).
I also very much enjoy the thought of the solid (and sold out) OOC games we have now garunteed ourselves by these moves. I think these three really have a brotherly relationship of sorts, all be it the type of sibling rivalry that is dangerously close to unsafe. We hate each other, but we're quick to defend how tough each of us are as an opponent when we see one of the Mason/VCU/ODU trivalry squared up against a BCS foe. As far as memories are concerned, rivalries such as these are almost always responsible for your best and worst. No better feeling than knocking ODU or Mason out of the CAA tournament, no worse feeling than watching them beat you on your court, or perhaps worse than that...have to watch their fans storm the Coliseum floor to raise the CAA Championship trophy. Take this last season for example, got my heartbroken by a miracle three-point road buzzer beater at Mason, only to be vindicated weeks later as VCU jumped out to a 30-4 start in the conference semis at the CAA tournament. If there's one thing I'll miss most about George Mason, it's the near garunteed win come conference tourny time. They were usually good for a pass into the next round. Old Dominion? Not so much.
It's almost fitting that ODU and VCU left the CAA at the same time. With that, each teams fans are able to argue about who made the better conference switch, and how each other's program screwed up with how they went about it. Classic. In the state of Virginia, there's no better college hoops rivalry than VCU and ODU. The Rams hold a 45-42 all-time edge, but how beautiful is that? Just three games seperate the two...ALL TIME. That's a rivalry. I love exiting the CAA after having just won the CAA crown, but hate knowing our last two tournament matchups -- and three of our last four -- against the Monarchs, resulted in losses. On a positive note, I'll never forget the look on Gerald Leigh's face as Larry Sanders through down a monster jam in the 2009 tournament final, but I'll also never forget the two following seasons when Leigh's teammate Frank Hassell bullied the Rams to back-to-back crowns. I'll reflect positively on last season's road win in Norfolk, but never be able to erase the memory of Brian Henderson's late "heroics" in 2008. I'd say I'd miss the rivalry if I really thought it was going anywhere.
Turning our focus back chronologically to 1994, I thought at the time that ODU’s season was over before it started – Hodge had injured his leg and would miss Petey Sessoms’ senior season. Furthermore, Oliver Purnell left during the offseason for the head coaching job at Dayton. Insert a Player-of-the-Year season by Sessoms and some fine point guardsmanship by freshman Brion Dunlap, and the Monarchs had an incredible season.
After capturing the CAA’s conference title, the Monarchs faced third-seeded (fourth-seeded?) Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament. At this point in time (1995) the stars were aligning for me to attend Old Dominion myself. My grades and SAT scores were nothing to sneeze at, but my family situation prevented me from looking outside the Hampton Roads area for college. I am thankful to have had ODU essentially in my backyard. It didn’t help that they offered a partial scholarship.
So despite only being a junior in high school, I already considered myself a Monarch. Watching Sessoms put up 35 points in .a triple overtime game was memorable, but moreso was his defense on Kerry Kittles. Playing three overtime periods took its toll the following round, as ODU lost to Tulsa. (Old Dominion’s move to Conference USA ensures the chance for the Monarchs to exact some revenge against this conference foe almost two decades later.)
Unfortunately this would be the highlight of the Jeff Capel era.
The incoming class of freshmen the following year would prove to be among the best Monarch classes to date. The group included Skipper Youngblood, Mike Byers, Mark Poag, Reggie Bassett and future NBA first round pick Cal Bowdler. I honestly don’t remember too much of their first couple seasons, as I was heavily involved in school activities my senior year of high school and my first year of college.
While the team failed to make the NCAA tournament my freshman year, they went back in the ’97-’98 season, losing by four to New Mexico. The class’ junior year was a bit disappointing. Their performance supremely suffered towards the end of the season, and Capel had little faith beyond the starting five. In the game when they were eliminated from the CAA tournament, the starters seemingly played literally the entire game and played exclusively zone defense. Byers went off for a ridiculous number of points and hit what would’ve been a game-tying three-pointer had he gotten the shot off a fraction of a second sooner.
I remember being excited for the following season, though, because they were losing only Brion Dunlap and had an exciting rising sophomore in Michael Williams. The lightning-quick, highly-recruited guard admitted that he wouldn’t have considered attending ODU had they not won that NCAA game against Villanova. (He was a high-level recruit for the CAA at the time, anyways.) He didn’t have the college career expected of him, but after a year of getting his feet wet, he was expected to perfectly complement the senior class.
This was the season I truly started studying the game. I learned that despite being among the team’s top scorers, Capel asked Byers to focus his energy on defense. The guard accepted this role, knowing that the offense would revolve around Bowdler. From all accounts before the season, the near-seven-foot forward from Northern Virginia took his game several higher levels during the offseason. Also returning that season was Mark Poag, who had set a record earlier in his career for most treys made in a single game without a miss (nine). Bassett never became the offensive force Bowdler did, but by his senior season he was a defensive force in the paint.
|Bowdler is the last Monarch to have been drafted by an NBA team.|
New to the team were guards LaVar Hemphill and Pierre Greene. The former left after only a couple seasons, not being able to get the playing time he felt he deserved. (This is my recollection; truth may be different, as I was a fan watching from the outside.) I enjoyed watching Greene play over the years, as his on-and-off-the-ball defense was rivaled over time only by Brandon Johnson, who we’ll discuss later on.
This Monarchs squad started out something like 9-1, with the lone loss being to the UNC Tar Heels in some early-season tournament sponsored by a bank. (Was it BB&T?) You could see the confidence of this team was extraordinarly high, specifically Bowdler. He went head-to-head with Brendan Haywood and won the individual battle, though not the game. The Tar Heels’ point guard Ed Cota drove the lane late in the game and scored on a difficult layup for the deciding points.
|A last-second layup by Ed Cota dashed ODU's upset bid against the Tar Heels.|
This game served to be the ultimate symbol of the season – it started out great as the Monarchs showed on a national level that they could compete with a top-five program, but little breakdowns (especially late) cost the team the victory. Poag was hitting from outside early, while Bowdler put up more than 20 points in outplaying more-heralded UNC post players.
Looking back there were a few random highlights of that season. I’ll never forget listening on the radio as the Monarchs struggled against an inferior Central Connecticut team, needing a late three-pointer by Freddie Bryant to take the lead and secure a victory. In Blaine Taylor’s program, Bryant would struggle to get playing time except in blowouts, but he was there when ODU needed him in ’98-’99. The Monarchs’ second loss that season was at George Washington. They were led by Shawnta Rodgers, a 5’3” guard who was seemingly everywhere. If I recall he led his team in points and rebounds that game…and several other games.
There was also a home game against St. Joseph’s, an A-10 power at that time. The Monarchs would hold on for a narrow win but the two things that stood out didn’t happen during the game. First, ODU’s mascot Big Blue tried to tackle St. Joseph’s mascot during a timeout. The latter is “manned” by a student on scholarship who must flap his wings from start to finish, every game – even during timeouts, halftime, etc. The St. Joseph’s mascot took exception to Big Blue’s actions, who probably didn’t know the significance of the symbolism, and there was a brief scuffle. It was not Big Blue’s finest hour.
The other thing I’ll never forget about that game is the post-game commentary of their coach, Phil Martelli. He was asked about the play of Bowdler, and he was effusive in his praise. The jist of what he said was that Bowdler had NBA-talent and would undoubtedly make the league.
|St. Joseph's mascot, The Hawk, is no fan of Big Blue.|
But what stands out most about this season was not the Monarchs, but the team that beat them to win the conference. I can’t recall the George Mason Patriots being particularly relevant prior to the late 90’s, but the tide turned with one specific player: George Evans. That Patriots team loved to press the ball, maybe not to the extent of Nolan Richardson’s “40 minutes of hell” but it was certainly more than just a casual press.
Mr. Evans joined the armed services (I don’t remember which branch) right out of high school, coming back to play four years of collegiate basketball for GMU. He was almost literally a man amongst boys. Back then I was ignorant about what was truly important in life, and I couldn’t believe that this grown-up was allowed to play against kids almost ten years his junior.
Now that I’ve got a better grasp on what truly matters in life, and appreciate what Mr. Evans did for our country, I can objectively look at what he did over his career and admire it. He was a three-time CAA player of the year and made his program relevant. Part of that was his physical maturity and years of armed services training, but none of that creates the ability to put the ball in the basket.
Old Dominion hosted George Mason late in the regular season, and my memory of watching it on TV was ODU’s countless number of turnovers near halfcourt. Had ODU had a point guard of Dunlap’s caliber (he graduated following the previous season), I think ODU could’ve handled the pressure and scored enough in the half court to win. That didn’t happen. Weeks later Old Dominion also couldn’t get past GMU in the CAA tournament, and landed an NIT invitation.
The Monarchs hosted a forgettable team in the first round, then traveled to play at Butler. I don’t recall his name but the Bulldogs were led by a power forward who was 6’4”. I thought for sure Bowdler would come in and dominate that game. Instead it was Butler’s forward who proved to be the real force, and the Monarchs’ season ended against the Bulldogs (not for the last time).
One aspect lost from that season was the selflessness of Skipper Youngblood. He came in the same recruiting class as Bowdler et al, but he was asked to sit out his fourth year for the health of the program. Capel didn’t have any other established post player lining up for playing time, so he requested that Youngblood redshirt that year to play a fifth. Skipper may also have been aware that his playing time in ‘98/’99 would’ve been limited. Like a true trooper, he put the good of the program ahead of himself and the success of a 25-win team.
|Skipper Youngblood, playing at the Old Dominion Field House.|
Unfortunately the next few years of ODU basketball are forgettable, but some of the players stand out. I was a student orientation counselor for three years so I got to meet all the incoming classes of freshmen. I’ll never forget how impressive Ricardo Marsh, Rasheed Wright and Joe Principe were as people – 18 year olds with good heads on their shoulders. Principe was a 6’11” forward/center who was signed late in the recruiting process. He only lasted a couple years and didn’t get much playing time. I’ll never forget the other students at orientation wanting me to stand back-to-back with Joe. I’m generously listed at 5’7”, so there were a few chuckles from the crowd impressed by the other Joe’s height.
Advancing to the second round of the NIT was no small feat for a CAA team back in the late 90’s. But none of Capel’s subsequent squads came close to even that level of performance, finishing with losing records. Old Dominion’s administration was planning on moving into a new basketball facility soon enough, and they felt the need to change the direction of the program. They parted ways with Capel within days after ODU was eliminated from the 2000-2001 CAA tournament.
There aren’t too many positive memories from those last few years. Andre McCallum and Clifton Jones each transferred in and were eligible to play beginning in ’98-’99 and remain two of my favorite players. McCallum was as athletic as anyone Blaine Taylor has been able to recruit, though was forced to play out of position at PF. Think of a shorter Nick Wright but with ACC-level explosiveness to attack the rim (he DID transfer from NC State.) Meanwhile Jones had one of the best all-around understandings of the game, with the matching skill set to do everything on the court from the wing. He was a little slow to be a slasher from the wings but he could shoot, distribute and rebound.
One of my other favorite memories was the emergence of Heath Burris, from nearby Greenbriar Christian Academy. I remember thinking it was awesome that a walk-on fought his way to earn playing time for the Monarchs, and he had a couple nights of lights-out shooting from deep to push ODU over the top. (In hindsight, though, I acknowledge that it says more about the level of scholarship players Capel recruited that forced him to play an overachieving walk-on.) The final name that stands out is John Waller, III. He was the pure-shooting, instant offense Blaine Taylor’s teams could have used the last couple years.
A lot of fans were unhappy with the former coach because of the results on the court, the level of the players he was recruiting and his lack of salesmanship. While he didn’t win enough for my liking, I’ll give him credit because of the type of people he brought in to play. Lost in college athletics is that kids are there to get an education and to learn leadership skills, not to win at all costs. Players like Bowdler, Marsh and Greene made me proud to have Capel as my team’s head coach for five of my five and a half years as an undergrad/graduate student.
|Jeff Capel will always have at least one fan from Old Dominion.|
The demise of ODU basketball at that time coincided with the near-extinction of the CAA itself. At the time there were nine schools in the conference, but three were soon to depart. American University left because it correctly predicted the increased level of spending by other schools, and it didn’t want to compete with them. East Carolina had played FBS football (then “D1”) as an independent most of its existence, but left to join Conference USA as an all-sports member.
Richmond essential led the rally to keep all other CAA teams together while swinging a backdoor deal to depart for the A-10. When these departures were announced (all were effective following the 2000-2001 season), the presidents of the remaining schools voted the bar the three schools from competing in the postseason tournaments. I can remember listening to Tony Mercurio on ESPN Radio 1310 at the time and thinking, “The CAA’s falling apart and ODU’s in trouble.”
(My other thought when listening to Mercurio was always, “How does this guy have a job when he belittles callers and adds nothing positive about local teams?” But thankfully moving to Baltimore after graduation alleviated that second problem.)
Back on point: those departing schools were hurting the conference, and they deserve whatever they get. I didn’t have problems with ECU or AU leaving, because they were upfront about their intentions. It was how Richmond left that got me a little riled up. The presidents of the remaining schools voted to exclude the departing schools from partaking in the CAA hoops tournament, and I felt it was justified. My personal feelings a decade ago are the reason I can’t get upset with presidents of current CAA schools doing the same to Old Dominion when it left. That topic could get a post until itself, but I’ll let sleeping dogs lie.
I believe at the time (and this may remain true), a basketball conference needed at least five member schools to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The CAA had six, but who was to say that those six members would stay with each other beyond that season?
|The CAA was in serious jeopardy.|
Personal note: I started graduate school the fall of 2000. I had four classes in the spring 2001 semester, with classes on four consecutive nights. Then that summer I started studying for the CPA exam, which I didn’t take until November 2001. I share this so you understand how preoccupied with real life matters I was during this CAA crisis.
At some point, the CAA announced that it was taking four teams from the America East Conference: Towson, Drexel, Hofstra and Delaware. I was familiar with Hofstra and Delaware because of their basketball success at that time. I knew Hofstra as the Dutch and could remember them hosting Delaware for the AE title on ESPN(2?) one year.
Frankly I can’t say that I had ever heard of Towson or Drexel prior to this, but I wasn’t as big a college basketball fan at the time as I eventually became. Thankfully Towson joined the CAA within months before I moved to Baltimore, although I was surprised at how little the local media covered the Tigers.
Regardless, the CAA was saved, and that was good enough for me at that point in my life. The same couldn’t be said about the Monarchs, though. As mentioned above, ODU had planned on building a state-of-the-art facility that would be basketball’s new home. The name would bare that of Ted Constant, the same man for whom the College of Business and Public Administration building was named. But they needed a change of pace for the program. They needed someone who knew and could coach basketball as well as Caple, but who was better at reaching out to the community (i.e., deep pockets). That man turned out to be Blaine Taylor, a former assistant from Stanford. All I knew about him was that he was an assistant coach at a school with significant NCAA tournament success at that time.
|Blaine Taylor had heading coaching experience at Montana prior to his years as an assistant coach at Stanford.|
Taylor had one more season of coaching at the old field house before Constant was open. If I recall he coached one game at the Norfolk Scope, and hated it so much that he shifted full-time to the field house. It’s at this point in my life that I moved to Baltimore, and unfortunately I couldn’t experience the transformation of Monarch basketball in person the same way that I experienced its decline. I followed from afar and made only one or two games per season, due to traveling demands at work.
However, while I myself may not have seen much action at the Constant Center, one of the most esteemed fans of Northeastern basketball was kind enough to share his thoughts. Northeastern and Georgia State univerisities joined the CAA beginning in the 2005 season. I knew of the former from Reggie Lewis, and I knew the latter from Left Drissell. Previously the CAA’s physical footprint was from Wilmington to Long Island, with half of its ten members in Virginia. Adding NU and GSU expanded that from Atlanta to Boston.
Mike Brodsky of Northeastern was kind enough to share some of his favorite Northeastern moments in the CAA with us, and are presented below.
My ODU memory – first time at the Ted, January 2011. ODU is leading NU about 26-9. Gene Spates hits a hail Mary 3 to cut the lead to 12. We go on an amazing run and silence the Ted. It was part of a run where NU beat ODU and VCU in the same week in Virginia, and we beat Mason at home earlier that week. After the game, the ODU President (An NU Alum) comes down to the locker room to talk to our team. Total Class. Here’s the details of the game…
I was there with a fellow NU alum, and Chase Allen’s aunt. I think we were the only 3 NU fans in the Ted that night. We were sitting near some obnoxious rednecks who were calling NU a hockey school all game. I usually don’t say anything to opposing fans, but as the game wound down he and his family left early and I said to him “Cletus, where you going? Having a party with your uncle-brother or something?” He said “NU Sucks” I said “I guess they didn’t teach you math at ODU, 50 is greater than 40.” He said “I didn’t go to ODU.” I said “I could never tell.”
The things I was juggling as a young professional took precedent over being as devoted to ODU basketball from afar as I could have when I was a poor student near campus. There was nothing memorable about Taylor’s first couple teams, although I remember a young forward/center scoring 48 points against Charlotte. That player, Alex Loughton, would be the key player to bring the Monarchs back to prominence in the CAA.
Before we get there we must pay homage to one of the best four-year runs of play within the CAA, courtesy of Brent Blizzard and the UNCW Seahawks. His squad reached the tournament final all four years, with the lone loss being a 37-35 painful display of basketball against George Mason. Blizzard had one of the most decorated careers as any player in the CAA, and how he ended up NOT making the NBA is beyond me. I feel even worse for him that his career ended on a last-second three-pointer by Maryland, which was even worse considering how many Terp fans I now knew. It’s all they showed on local TV for weeks. I just remember thinking how far that team could’ve gone had that last shot not gone in.
The second season after Wimington lost in that 2003 NCAA tournament, it was Old Dominion’s time to rise. Recruiting his own talent, Taylor’s records went on the following upward trajectory: 13-16, 12-15, 17-12. Then in 2004-2005, Taylor’s team had a local talent in senior Kiah Thomas on top of Loughton, Isaiah Hunter and Drew Williamson. The Monarchs went 25-5 during the regular season, then defeated Virginia Commonwealth in overtime of the CAA final.
That Monarch squad probably had a good enough resume to receive an at-large bid had they not beaten the Rams, but thankfully we never needed to know. Old Dominion drew Michigan State in the opening round and went toe-to-toe with them, eventually losing by eight or nine points. Loughton did his share with more than 20 points and ten rebounds (again, I’m going by memory as much as I can for this story).
And then…the magical 2005-2006 season happened. If your Twitter handle involves the words “defiantly” and “dutch,” you may want to skip the next few paragraphs.
The Monarchs were the preseason favorite as they brought back the one-two senior punch of Loughton and Hunter, and the only player they lost to graduation was Thomas. But the team struggled to maintain the success it experienced in 2004-2005, and they had to “settle” for an NIT run. (More on that in a bit.)
It would be an injustice to not touch on the 2005-2006 seasons of UNCW, George Mason and Hofstra. Wilmington won the CAA tournament (the last time a non-VA school won the title), beating a Hofstra team in the finals that had defeated GMU in the semi-finals. The quality of the CAA at this point was its highest to date, and is only surpassed by the ’10-’11 season. There was room in the NCAA tournament for all three of these teams. Unfortunately, only two made it (UNCW and at-large GMU) while Hofstra was relegated to the NIT with ODU.
|Let me be the 10,000,000th person to make the joke, "Hofstra getting snubbed from the NCAA tournament was a punch in the nuts."|
Here’s what I remember. George Mason entered the endearing ESPN bracket buster weekend with a solid resume and eeked out a three-point win on the road against a phenomenal Wichita State team. The Shockers themseves made the Sweet Sixteen that year. Following that weekend the Patriots obtained a top 25 ranking in one of the two national polls, then lost their next game at Hofstra by double digits. Less than two full weeks later the Patriots lost to Hofstra in the CAA tournament.
I won’t argue that Mason did or did not belong in the NCAA tournament. Personally I think they did. But Hofstra finished the regular season with more than 20 wins, a great RPI and two wins against GMU. They also belonged in. What makes it worse for Hofstra fans is the subsequent Final Four march that George Mason engineered.
In their own first round game, the Seahawks jumped out to a lead of nearly 20 points against George Washington. They would surrender that lead and eventually lose the game. Sadly this was the last highlight UNCW has experienced in basketball. From 1994 through 2002 Jerry Wainwright led the team to a 136-103 record (57%), including two NCAA trips and an NIT appearance his last three years. Wainwright’s replace, Brad Brownell, went 83-40 (67%) in the next four years with two NCAA appearances in that stretch. Since they bumbled contract discussions with Brownell, their head coaches have gone 66-119 (36%). In four of these six seasons, the team had won ten games or less (including two seasons of seven wins).
(Note: I did research those records, because I needed to display specifically how far UNCW has fallen.)
I always appreciated Wainwright’s teams. He and Coach Capel were personal friends, and the latter always spoke highly of the former. The Seahawks always played tough defense for 40 minutes under Wainwright. Brownell continued Wainwright’s success. To see a program with proven winners that I grew to respect fall on such hard times has been difficult for this CAA fan. If your team can’t win a regular season or a tournament, it’s at least a little less difficult to endure when you lose to a program you respect. It’s been hard watching UNCW fall on such hard times, which we won’t further chronicle here. A quick Google search or reading the CAAZone boards will get you all the background you’ll need.
While Hofstra didn’t suffer long-term like UNCW has following 2005-2006, that doesn’t mean its postseason that year was any easier. Loren Stokes was one of the smoothest players I can remember watching. He played without showing any sense of effort. I remember teammates Antoine Agudio and Carlos Rivera being really good players, but Stokes just stood out. If I could draft players from other schools I would’ve wanted on ODU, Hofstra’s top two were Charles Jenkins and Stokes (in that order).
But with things as they were, Hofstra ended up playing in the NIT. I know they won at least two games because they ended up hosting Old Dominion, who had won three games to reach the NIT’s elite eight. There are two things I remember about the Monarchs’ win: my best friend came over to watch the game with my roommate and me, and Isaiah Hunter seemingly couldn’t miss in the second half. It was among the most impressive offensive performance by a Monarch I can remember (at least the second half).
There’s only one moment of GMU’s Final Four run that I want to mention. It seemed like UConn’s final three-point attempt at the end of overtime hung up in the air for a few hours, then bounced around the rim another couple hours. It’s cliché to say this but that shot just wouldn’t come down. In the postgame press conference immediately after the game, Coach Jim Larranaga made it a point to reference Old Dominion’s own run in the NIT.
Fans of opposing CAA schools have reasons to despise coaches and players of other schools. I find it hard to despise players because they’re young men still trying to figure out the world. As for coaches, I can’t think of anyone in the CAA who genuinely rubbed me the wrong way. Coach L pissed off some ODU fans for supposedly cheering in the open when NU knocked off the Monarchs in the CAA tournament. I didn’t see it so I can’t hold that against him. What I did see and hear, though, was him giving ODU attention when he could’ve talked 100% George Mason.
Following Old Dominion’s win over Hofstra, they lost in the NIT semifinal pretty badly to Michigan (?). Arnaud Dahi blew out a knee, Loughton’s season-long injuries caught up to him and Hunter just couldn’t make shots. So ended the career of Alex Loughton, who finished in the top ten among Monarchs in both scoring and rebounds. Hunter himself remains in the top 20 of all-time ODU scorers.
Having graduated Taylor’s two best players at that time, I assumed Old Dominion would take a step back in the CAA following its NIT run. Little did I know that the ’06-’07 would be even better than what Loughton and Hunter provided the prior year.
As high as my expectations were for the 2005-2006 season, my expectations for 2006-2007 were conversely as low. The team graduated its two best players since Cal Bowdler in the late 90’s, and I didn’t know what to expect with an injured Dahi coming back. But this was the season that I began to understand how good a program Blaine Taylor was developing.
On a Sunday afternoon during November, I was watching football at the house when I changed the channel to ESPN. On the ticker at the bottom, I was pretty sure I had misread that ODU defeated Georgetown University. With it being a Sunday I had to wait for the scroll to get through all NFL scores again before I could re-read that statement.
It turns out that I read it right the first time. Georgetown had started that season in the top 10 and had yet to lose, while ODU traveled to play them at their on-campus facility. Sam Harris had more than his share of blocks and rebounds, while the Monarchs had hit their 3’s. That was a pretty good combination that resulted in a “W.”
There weren’t too many other games that stood out until the team ripped off ten consecutive wins during conference play. Things started coming together for the team when Brandon Johnson learned how to play on the court at the same time with Drew Williams. Both were point guards and Johnson needed to adjust to not being the primary ball handler. (This has been a staple of Old Dominion – generally unspectacular results during non-conference play while the players figure out their new roles, then taking off in late-January once players understand how their skills fit together as a team.)
What helped the backcourt was the emergence of Valdas Vasylius. A Lithuanian who attended nearby Norfolk Collegiate High School, “VV” was sort of a wrecking ball his first three years – a bruising power forward who carried the proverbial “you’d hate him unless he was on your team, then you’d love him” mantel. Nothing he did the previous three seasons made me think he had First Team All-CAA talent. Simply put, he was a fouling machine who excelled at clogging the middle, defending and rebounding.
But a light in his head apparently turned on his senior season and he carried the Monarchs to a 24-8 regular season. My favorite game was a February night at home against Towson. My boss let me go home early for my birthday, which I spent with friends watching ODU on TV. Vasylius just ripped the Tigers apart inside, scoring upwards of 30 points. It was like he had learned the line between playing physical ball and mauling your opponent overnight.
The next thing I remember was ODU’s CAA quarterfinal game against that same Towson team. Future San Antonio Spur Gary Neal kept his Tigers unfathomably close, and had it not been for Brian Henderson’s randomly assertive shooting, the Monarchs would’ve lost. Had they lost to that Towson team, Old Dominion wouldn’t have received an at-large bid, which they needed after losing to GMU in the semi-final round.
For whatever reason I wasn’t overly concerned about ODU getting an at-large bid. All the “experts” I read and heard thought their play over the final third of the season coupled with the road win over ranked-GU was enough. But what about Drexel? They had seemingly beaten everyone out of conference (in both road and neutral venues), finishing fourth in the standings with a 23-8 record. Man, that team had some talent – Bashir Mason, Frank Elegar, and Chaz Crawford formed quite a trio.
But it wasn’t meant to be. We found out during the announcement of the very first bracket that the Monarchs got an at-large bid, and waited painfully for Drexel’s name to be called…to no avail. The Dragons received a pretty high seed in the NIT but lost at home in the first round to an ACC team (NC State?). I don’t know how much this played into the committee’s decision, but ODU beat Drexel both times during the regular season. If this was a criterion to pick one team over the other, why didn’t the selection committee take Hofstra over George Mason the prior season? Was there a two-invitation cap the committee placed on the CAA at the time?
I was able to take off work the middle of the day to watch the Monarchs battle their first round opponents, the Butler Bulldogs. Old Dominion raced out to a “blistering” 20-19 lead at halftime, but wound up losing by about ten points. The team (or at least specific individuals that I won’t name) just looked out of sorts, although they got an inspired performance from a freshman forward by the name of Gerald Lee. The young man from Finland provided ten points and rebounds apiece, but it wasn’t enough to jump-start the entire team.
So what was so special about this season? The at-large berth by itself in a vacuum is a sufficient point of pride. That it was earned following a season where expectations weren’t met is a bonus. But the key was the discovery that there was now a program in place. Coach Taylor graduated his two best players but didn’t miss a beat thanks to strong performances by Vasylius and Williamson. Williamson was a contributor from his freshman year, but the improvement in Vasylius’ game was eye-opening. Did ODU have a head coach teaching his kids in a system so that by the time they’re called upon as upperclassmen, they execute his style of play?
I cannot overstate how important this season was, though it doesn’t seem as memorable to other Monarch fans. It’s all about how you interpret things.
The team did suffer the drop off in ‘07/’08 that I expected the previous season. Brandon Johnson’s play couldn’t overcome the loss of Williamson’s court presence, and while Lee led the team in scoring and rebounding, he wasn’t assertive enough as a sophomore to lead yet. The season ended with a loss at UVA in the CBI tournament. Johnson, who won CAA Defensive POY, proved to be Taylor’s best defender to date, and was even better than the aforementioned Pierre Greene.
(Quick note – the team’s 18-16 record that season was the first time in four years the team failed to win at least 20 games. In the four years since then, the team has averaged more than 25 wins per season. That is one more stat I admit to researching for this post.)
The next few years were a build-up to an amazing 2010/2011 season. The ’08/’09 season rivaled the ‘06/’07 season in terms of my enjoyment in following the team grow. We’ll pick up with the last regular season game. On that Saturday I visited a friend in Harrisburg. For dinner we went to Hooters because we figured it was the only place that would’ve shown a random ODU-Northeastern game on Comcast. We also like their food. Wink.
There was an artificial point of pride on the line for the team this game, or at least for the fans. Since the CAA expanded to twelve teams, the top four teams at the end of the season were given first round byes. The other eight teams played that Friday. Since that format was introduced, the Monarchs had always finished the regular season among the top four seeds, thus never having to play on “Pillow Fight Friday.”
Entering this game in Boston, fourth place was on the line. Northeastern was going to be a top-four seed no matter what, but another team held a tie-breaker for fourth place over Old Dominion should the Monarchs lose. I think maybe one team (ECU?) is the only CAA team to have won four games to win the CAA tournament, so getting that bye is somewhat important. A win meant a top-four seed; a loss meant an introduction to Friday of the CAA tournament.
The game was close throughout, and I don’t recall either team having a significant lead. The Huskies were leading by three points with only a few seconds to go in the game, but ODU had the final possession. Following a timeout, senior Jonathan Adams took a pass near the top of the key, squared up, and drained a three-pointer to force overtime. I don’t remember much about overtime other than the Monarchs winning, but that one shot is something I’ll never forget.
Similar to the previous discussion of Vasylius, it showed the ability of Taylor’s seniors to assert themselves when needed most. Adams was the lone senior in his class, and he hit at least two game-winning shots that year (against Charlotte and William and Mary). He never put up the statistics that Monarch fans expected, but he was a smart player who could do everything to help a team win. It will be that one shot at the end of regulation by which I’ll remember Mr. Adams, who was a multiple CAA All-Academic selection and once a CAA basketball scholar of the year.
But the story of the ‘08/’09 season was the postseason run in the CIT. A new tournament introduced that year, the College Insider Tournament seems to be aimed at mid-major schools that failed to make the NCAA or the NIT tournaments. Initially I scoffed at the idea of ODU playing in another tournament like it did the prior year, but after they won their first two games, I liked the idea of it.
|Before Hassell took the Monarchs to the NCAA's against Notre Dame and Baylor, he had to pay his dues in the CIT.|
It was giving the team additional experience. Redshirt sophomore Frank Hassell carried the team to the CIT title, earning tournament MVP honors along the way. It was refreshing to see him assert himself like a veteran after (understandably) playing like a sophomore earlier in the season. A consultant who was doing work for us needed someone to watch the NCAA tournament with, so we went to Buffalo Wild Wings. He couldn’t understand how I could be excited about ODU winning a tournament that “no one cares about.” But I saw a team with only one senior, a junior forward who made First Team All-CAA, and a redshirt sophomore showing immense progression at the end of the season.
In other words, I saw potential in the future.
The CAA could muster just one team to the NCAA tournament (via the automatic bid) since sending two following the 2007 season. George Mason was still getting decent publicity, especially when the media would ask, “Who’s this year’s George Mason?” It was good for that school and in general the CAA, but no teams were strong enough in the conference to earn at-large bids since ODU’s in 2007.
But teams would begin raising their play drastically in ‘09/’10. Four teams (ODU, VCU, William and Mary and Northeastern) all won at least 20. While the number of wins was nothing new, the quality of the teams had improved. The Rams themselves won the CBI tournament in Shaka Smart’s first year as head coach. The Huskies and Tribe would both earn bids to the NIT, though they were both robbed in the seeds they earned (and were NCAA-caliber despite both getting snubbed).
But that season came down to the final weekend and CAA tournament in my mind. Old Dominion lost its lone game to NU that season, and thus Bill Coen’s squad had the tie-breaker. The Monarchs hosted the Rams in the regular season finale. I don’t recall exact statistics but Gerald Lee outperformed future NBA first round pick Larry Sanders, who simply didn’t look interested in playing college ball anymore.
As an ODU alum it may sound as if I’m taking a shot at a VCU player, but that’s as objective an assessment as I’ll ever give. Generally I don’t take shots at people in sports, unless it’s Dan Marino. So I am being genuine when I recall that Larry Sanders looked unfocused and completely uninterested in playing basketball that day. Old Dominion held on for a three-point win after hitting late free throws, and their first regular season title since 2005 was theirs.
After trouncing Towson in the quarters of the tournament next week, Sanders would have another shot at taking down the Monarchs. Aided by the home town advantage of playing five miles from their campus, the Rams held a double-digit lead with a dozen minutes to go. But at that point Coach Taylor instituted a zone defense and VCU suddenly had no offensive flow. Again, a senior (Marsharee Neely) hit a big three out of a timeout to jumpstart the team’s offense.
In classic fashion between the CAA’s biggest rivals, the game would go to overtime. The teams punched and jabbed at each other until the defining play of the game occurred. Someone passed the ball to Ben Finney on the wing. A Ram jumped the passing lane and nearly nabbed the ball, but it eluded him and landed in Finney’s hands. The forward squared up and nailed a trey to give Old Dominion a lead it would not relinquish.
I’m not going to give that moment or game justice by writing about it. Just watch the video. I cannot remember another sequence in basketball that made me jump out of my seat like that. (I also can't believe Finney's play isn't included in the highlights. SOUTHERN BIAS! ...oh wait...)
With the semifinals win, the Monarchs had a 25-8 record and effectively punched a ticket to the NCAA tournament, regardless of whether they would defeat William and Mary in the final round. I met two friends at a TGI Friday’s to watch that final round with me. Honestly I felt emotionally hung over from the win against VCU, with the feeling that ODU was in the tournament regardless. I was thankful Northeastern lost to the Tribe, as Bill Coen’s squad had the backcourt and enough defensive grit to outlast Old Dominion. Matt Janning and Chaisson Allen were phenomenal together.
William and Mary played exceptionally tough, never letting the game get out of hand, but the Monarchs came away with the win. I don’t recall Lee having that big of a game, but Finney and others kept hitting their 3’s. Who doesn’t remember ESPN cutting to UCONN’s women basketball at the end of the first half, just to show the Lady Huskies break the all-time winning streak?
That Old Dominion would defeat Notre Dame in the first round of the tournament and had Baylor on the ropes until late is important, but not the story. For me the season was further validation that Coach Taylor had built a program. The seeds for this season were planted in the ‘08/’09 CIT tournament championship. The end result of making the round of 32 was a nice destination, but the journey made it worthwhile.
The 2010/2011 season is still fresh enough in the reader’s mind that we’ll skim past many specifics. But there are a couple highlights to discuss, the first of which was going to see the Monarchs play at Towson. Thanks to a half court three at the end of the first half, the Tigers either tied the game or took a small lead over ODU. Mind you, this is the same Towson team that would go on to lose every conference game…plus one very special wintercoat. The Monarchs struggled to win by four. The lesson – don’t take any opponents likely.
Later in January I drove to Hofstra at the invitation of one Defiantly Dutch fan. It was the lone regular season matchup between Hofstra and ODU, and had big implications on standings at season’s end. I’ve shared this story before, and you can read about me meeting him and Gary Moore here. The Monarchs won the game but Jerry and his wife still took me to Wayne Chrebet’s place afterwards. And they didn’t poison my food! Also, it was the only time I got to see Charles Jenkins in person. What a player.
The final memory of that season was Senior Night. I got goosebumps watching Hassell, Finney, Keyon Carter and Darius James get introduced at home for the last time. As good as the Bowdler/Bassett/Poag/Byers quartet was, they were surpassed by this group of seniors. I can’t think of a senior class at Old Dominion that was beloved as a whole as that group of guys.
And that makes their loss in the NCAA tournament to dreaded Butler that much harder. As fans we never want to see our team’s season end with a loss…but losing on a last-second putback in the first round? I physically ached a couple days for those guys. They were a part of the second wave of ODU’s revival under Blaine Taylor. The first wave was Loughton’s junior and senior seasons (making the NCAA tournament, then the NIT Final Four). This second wave (consecutive CAA tournament titles, winning 27 games each of those years) just seemed more personal because of the people involved.
But this wasn’t just a landmark year for the Monarchs; it was the first time the CAA sent three teams to the NCAA tournament. Old Dominion beat Virginia Commonwealth in the tournament final, but VCU and George Mason both got at-large bids. The former won its first round game while the latter made it to the Final Four.
I feel bad for Drexel’s coach, Bruiser Flint, for how incompetent the refs were in the quarterfinal game that his team lost. It was this game that brought me over to the dark side of believing the “southern bias” conspiracy theory.
This past season was a bit different for me, in that I covered games as a member of the media. I shared that story (you can read it here) so I won’t rehash it. The one thing I must repeat, though, is how amazing all the SID’s were for each school. I was writing for a website but they treated me like a peer to professional writers whose work I’ve read for years.
So there are my thoughts and memories on Old Dominion basketball. Hopefully it was somewhat enjoyable, although I think if you’ve made it this far then it couldn’t have been too bad.
But I started this post by talking about the school’s move from the CAA to Conference USA. Hopefully the reader understands the pride I’ve taken in ODU, but I’ve genuinely wanted the best for the conference as well. Since the move was announced on May 17, I’ve been taken over by cognitive dissonance. Football, the sport I grew up watching, has been successful at ODU and is the reason the move is happening. But the CAA and its members are the only college rivals I’ve grown up caring about.
On the one hand, the CAA offers quality football with natural rivals in close proximity. On the other hand, Conference USA offers more media exposure, which has already assisted in recruiting and fundraising. There are countless other pros and cons to list for both sides. That’s not what I want to discuss here.
My initial question revolved around whether this is a good or bad move for Old Dominion, and my response is that it’s all about Di Giacomo. This is somewhat of an abstract response because the question itself can be addressed along multiple metrics. How do you define “success” in college athletics? Is it winning? Is it fundraising? Is it raising public awareness of your institution?
I use Di Giacomo as an example of my metric. She graduated as literally the most prolific field hockey player in NCAA history, accounting for a record-414 points while finishing her career second in goals scored (167). She won the CAA POY all four years of her career and led the Lady Monarchs to two national titles, including her senior year.
But it’s not the winning or individual accomplishments that impressed me. It was how she handled herself in class and on campus. The few times I interacted with her, she was courteous and respectful. She treated everyone in the classroom in such a way. You would never know that she was the best in the world at what she did outside the classroom. What’s impressive to me about her (in order) is that (1) she graduated, (2) the manner in which she conducted herself, and (3) her accomplishments on the field.
So in judging whether the move to Conference USA is good, I ask myself this – will there be more Marina Di Giacomo’s? Or will Old Dominion start recruiting kids who don’t graduate and aren’t good ambassadors for the school? In general, will Old Dominion continue to recruit and graduate non-student-athletes like myself, who take pride in their school and are thankful for the opportunities it provides?
I question the extent to which the well-being of the students has been considered when conference changes have occurred. For all I know, every change was made with the students prominent in the minds of presidents and athletic department personnel. But what I DID hear is how much money each school will get from conference TV deals and what this means in terms of prestige.
This is a metric I personally may never get to observe. As I’m no longer a student, I can’t just go on campus and interact with student athletes without being creepy. I believe Old Dominion sports will be fine in the long run; the athletic department has operated on a solid foundation for decades, and Hampton Roads has genuinely support the big-time sports since the Ted was completed and football started up.
In fact, here are the words of Ben Moore and the rest of the team at PantherTalk.com. Ben is a native of Hampton Roads so he's seen the evolution of ODU athletics from a different perspective than a graduate like myeslf.
-Favorite GSU vs. ODU memories: Comparing our athletic departments and athletic achievements. ODU sets the standard. A big shout out to ODU for doing everything right.
-It hasn't been good. Since joining the CAA, we're 0-2 in football and 1-10 in men's basketball (lone victory was a 55-54 win in 2009 in the Rod Barnes Era).
-Georgia State resident wild man Preston Stancil going back and forth with ODU basketball star Kent Bazemore.
-"ODU > GSU. In everything. We want to be them.
-Nothing but respect and admiration from the Panther Family to Old Dominion. And personally, as a Hampton born, Virginia Beach bred sports fan, I'm really happy for the Monarchs success.
But will Old Dominion University continue to attract, educate and graduate individuals like Di Giacomo? If not, then I’ll get a little less enjoyment out of ODU sports. But if it does, then the move to Conference USA is a success.