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Living Like A Monarch Basketball Blog

There's a well-known quote about college basketball that "a season is a lifetime."

If that's the case, the Old Dominion University Monarchs men's season has been a fuller life than most.

There was the stunning upset of undefeated Georgetown during a blizzard in Washington, D.C. A series of narrow losses in high-stakes road games against some of the country's top teams. And finally, a heart-stopping win over arch-rival Virginia Commonwealth University on Senior Day last Saturday, clinching for the Monarchs the title of regular-season conference champion.

Brendan O'Hallarn, of ODU's Office of University Relations, has followed the team through all of its ups and downs. He's kept a running blog, called "Living Like a Monarch," which has appeared on the ODU Athletics Web site. In the process, he's become a Monarch basketball addict.

Throughout this weekend's Colonial Athletic Association Tournament in Richmond, he will keep a blog in this space, following every move of the Monarchs and their foes. If ODU wins, the team earns a trip to the "Big Dance" - the 65-team NCAA Tournament - which starts in two weeks.

Check back frequently throughout the weekend for updates. To read all of his blog entries from the 2009-10 season, check out the "Living Like a Monarch" site at http://www.odusports.com/ot/living-like-a-monarch.html.

Tuesday, 7 a.m. -- The CAA Champions, in their own words

We're going dancing! Old Dominion University is off to the NCAA Tournament after fighting off a determined William and Mary team 60-53 in the final of the CAA Tournament.

A season's worth of effort and execution went into Monday night's court-storming by students and fans at the Richmond Coliseum. Now this team, which all year has been seen as the conference's top squad, gets its chance to perform on the national stage.

In the din surrounding last night's victory celebration, I asked a bunch of people connected to the ODU Monarchs what this moment meant to them. They're in no particular order, but these comments say more than I ever could about the team we all root for passionately.

Director of Basketball Operations Joel Hines - "Everyone involved in this program had a role in it. Everyone. Sports information directors, coaches, trainers, fans, people at the Constant Center, everyone. So many people work together just for a common goal. That's the gratifying thing right there."

Point guard Darius James - "It's just exciting. We talked about this all preseason. We said we were going to do it. To come out and do it is really great."

Jenni Bradshaw, dental hygiene student and regular in the student section at the Ted - "Just listen to this. It's breathtaking. It's so exciting to hear and feel this energy. I've been waiting since freshman year. It's awesome."

Mark Linn, team supporter who is battling cancer - "This has been my life, and these kids have become a family. I don't know how I'd do it without them. 2005 was great. But this has just been really special, because I guess, of my condition, and because of the way the team and the coaches made me part of it. I'm looking forward to the Dance."

Associate head coach Jim Corrigan - "It's like the first time every time, when you go through something like this. It's such a long haul, it's like running a marathon. When you get to the finish line and you've won, it's just amazing. I can't imagine it would ever get old."

Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Paul Helsel - "It's all about the kids, and it's such a great opportunity seeing their hard work pay off. They did so much to prepare for this moment. We were picked to win and everyone stepped up. What more can you ask of these kids?"

Reserve forward Nick Wright - "We deserve this. We do a lot more things that the average team does. We get up early and work out in the morning, we lift weights extra hard. They predicted us to do this. There's a reason why they did that, we work hard to do this."

William and Mary coach Tony Shaver - "That's a great team we played tonight. They're big, they're physical, they defend aggressively, and they seem to have two or three guys step up every game offensively. I really think this team really has a chance to beat people in the NCAA Tournament."

Mark Benson, Assistant Vice President for Athletic Development - "Actually, right now I'm figuring out where we're going to go and how I'm going to get people tickets. But other than that, great win, great tournament. To be regular season champs and win the tournament, there's no doubt about it. It's awesome. You look at some of these players, they've been through, their ups and downs. It's really nice for them to enjoy this moment with so many of their fans here.

Aseem Rastogi, student leader of the Monarch Maniacs spirit group - "It's the perfect way to go out. I'm graduating in May and I never thought we'd win one, but this time, like I said at the beginning of the year, it's our time. We had to get this one and we finished the game. I'm thinking about going home, sleeping in my own bed, and dreaming of an NCAA Championship."

David Weisser, ODU Athletics' Director of Marketing and Promotions - "I'm pretty much speechless. It's amazing, it's been a great journey watching these players this year. They deserve it, they earned it, and I'm unbelievably proud of them."

Team radio announcer Ted Alexander - "I think it's just unbelievable the way these guys dealt with all the pressures of being picked to win everything, and coming out and facing adversity and battling. Just yesterday against VCU being down 12, to suck it up in the hostile arena and pull it off is just unbelievable. You just gain so much pride for these guys, and the fact they stuck to the task and they're getting rewarded for it."

Alonzo Brandon, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations - "We're planning the next tournament. This was an expectation. I see greater things for this team, this was just a step. The players and coaches think that way, too."

Assistant coach John Richardson, whose wife gave birth to a son, John, over Christmas -"Make no mistake about it, the birth was the biggest thing about this season. But this ranks right behind it. To have the family here, to watch it, was just an unbelievable feeling."

Reserve shooting guard Trian Iliadis - "Oh my goodness. Just watching the other teams that had won their tournaments on the TV yesterday, I told myself 'We have to win this.' Now that we've done it, it's the best feeling I've ever had in my life.'

Sunday 6:45 p.m. - What do I write about this??

I am sitting here at my keyboard, struggling. How do you describe a basketball game that makes you cry, actually cry, because you're so joyous, so emotional, so spent.

By now, you SHOULD know that ODU defeated its nemesis, Virginia Commonwealth, in overtime of the semifinal game of the CAA Tournament, 73-69. And that ODU will play in Monday's championship game of the tournament against William and Mary, with a berth in the NCAA Tournament going to the winner.

But that doesn't begin to describe the roller coaster of emotions the game meant for the participants and spectators. So much history between the two teams. So much at stake for an ODU team seen as one of the best in years.

Again, I'm not qualified to provide any sort of authoritative report. So here's a day-long play-by-play from one fan, who cheers for this team of wonderful guys with all of his heart.

11:45 a.m. -- Three hours, 15 minutes to tipoff, and there are already a hundred or so VCU fans in the line for student tickets when I drive by the Richmond Coliseum. I know their campus is a mile away, and we hate them and all, but that's impressive. It also speaks to how big a game this will be today.

12:30 p.m. - I'm back in the car after meeting my wife, two kids and our friends for lunch. They're going to the Children's Museum. I'm off to my own amusement park. My wife asks me to buy her a couple of tickets, which she'll pick up from Will Call. She's going to watch ODU from the upper deck while trying to wrangle a four-year-old AND a one-year-old. Now that's a fan!

12:45 p.m. Haha parking lot attendants! They weren't in place to collect the five dollars from me when I parked my car. It's a good omen for today. A potential bad omen - the six vehicles next to me are full of tailgating VCU fans. But we knew this. It's a road game for us.

1 p.m. - One of the great things about becoming an ODU basketball fanatic this season is that I now know so many of the team's fans. I step out onto the concourse and one of the first people I see is Barb Taychert, who I took a madcap drive with to watch our win at UNC-Wilmington in January. At the tournament you meet fans from every different team. I chatted up some William & Mary fans, asking who they want to win between us and VCU. "They can't both lose, can they?" the guy asks. "I guess I'll take ODU." We'll take any support we can get, lukewarm or otherwise.

1:10 p.m. - Now the line for VCU student tickets is looooong, snaking all the way around a large brick wall. At the front of the line, I chat with Kim Redford, asking what time she arrived. "Seven-thirty a.m." she says proudly. Then the VCU fans boo in unison as a couple of ODU fans cut through their line to get to the Old Dominion entrance. Over in the ODU line, International Studies student Kim Ganczak has gone all out, wearing an ODU flag over her shoulders, with painted cheeks and a blue and white "Cat in the Hat" hat. Engineering student Wafic Omran urges me to sit in the student section today. "You're good luck for us," he says, noting that we won the game with VCU in Norfolk when I sat in the student section.

1:25 p.m. -- I pop into the Big Blue Club party and it's packed. The food's gone quickly as several hundred Monarch fans chat nervously. The Ted Heads have the paint kit, thankfully, outfitting ODU fan Chris Rigotti with blue paw prints across his bald head.

1:40 p.m. - Back outside the arena, I see a handful of tall kids and an older gentleman wearing basketball sweats from IC Norcom in Portsmouth. That's Ben Finney's school. Assistant coach Barney Stevenson has brought a few of the team's current players, including Finney's brother Dorian Finney-Smith. "You get excited when you see these kids grow up to be Division 1 players," says Stevenson, who coached Ben as well. "You remember them when they play rep ball before they even get to high school."

2:05 p.m. I stalk the floor before the game, watching players from both teams fire jumpers, looking serious. In fact, everyone I see wearing ODU gear, player or fan, looks about as serious as I've seen them all season. I climb the stairs of the ODU fan section to chat with my friends the Kieltys and Browns. I ask for predictions. Peter Kielty thinks the Monarchs will win by 10. Beverly Kielty thinks it'll be six. Barbara Brown thinks it'll be a three-point win by ODU. "That'll kill (her husband) Jerry," I warn. "I know," she says. "He's walking in the concourse now. He's too nervous."

2:45 p.m. A couple of George Mason fans proudly sport their colors. I sidle up and ask who they're with. "ODU all the way," one says. "Beat those guys for us." Old Dominion Hail!

3:00 p.m. - Intros. We're starting the same lineup as Saturday: Gerald Lee, Frank Hassell, Ben Finney, Kent Bazemore and Darius James. I look over at the student section and it's packed, too. Now we're ready for some hoops!

3:15 p.m. - First timeout and we're up 8-7 after a layup by Gerald. It's almost dizzying to keep up with the action; bodies fly all over the court. The sellout crowd - three-quarters for them, a quarter for us - couldn't possibly be louder.

3:20 p.m. - Scratch that. The roof just about came off the Coliseum after VCU got a three-pointer, then a steal and jumper to go ahead 18-13. Kent Bazemore quiets the folks in black and gold and gets the blue and white fans on their feet after driving the length of the court for a vicious two-handed dunk in traffic.

3:45 p.m. - It's halftime and ODU's ahead 32-29. A few highlights from the last couple of minutes include a steal and dunk by ODU senior Marsharee Neely, and Gerald Lee drawing Terrance Saintil's third foul and making both free throws. The ODU student section chants "Three fouls! No points" at Saintil. The VCU student paper reporter next to me informs me that's a typical statline for him. During halftime I make the hike to my wife and kids' seats in the third deck. I think I got a nosebleed it was so high. But my daughter is representing well, with "Go ODU" painted on her cheek.

4:15 p.m. - OK, that's not how we wanted to start the second half. At the first media timeout, VCU has turned a three-point deficit into a 39-34 lead. The Rams' full court press is causing us difficulty. The burst blood vessel in my brain is causing me difficulty.

4:35 p.m. - Can we start the second half over? Another steal by tiny VCU guard Joey Rodriguez leads to a dunk and we're behind 52-40 at the under-12 media timeout. I look up at the scoreboard and see that No. 12 has 20 points. I just assume that's Rodriguez, but that's actually Gerald Lee's point total. It just seems like Rodriguez has that many points. That little dude is everywhere. Not a good sign - during the media timeout it was our cheer and dance team's turn to take the floor. They look how I feel. Shattered. We can't lose this game.

4:45 p.m. - That's a little better! Our switch to a zone defense makes VCU a little more stationary on offense, and we cut into their lead a little bit. At the under-8 media timeout we've pulled within seven, and we've got the ball coming out of the timeout.

4:55 p.m. - We're still behind by six. Five minutes to go. Out of a timeout, Neely spins to the top of the key and lets a three-pointer go. Bam! We're within three. VCU scores, and Keyon Carter lines up his own three the next time down. Kapow!!! Two-point game!!!!!! It's VCU's cheer team's turn to look shell-shocked during their court time.

5:00 p.m. - My heart didn't need this. Overtime, tied at 62. We had the ball with 35 seconds left and turned it over, but our defense kept VCU from winning the game at the buzzer. As the horn sounds to end regulation time, fans of both teams roar in appreciation at what they're seeing. What a fantastic game.

5:15 p.m. - Overtime is a blur. We don't miss a shot, but VCU scores with regularity as well. Nursing a two-point lead, Ben Finney lines up a three-point shot in transition with a little over a minute to go. It finds the net. Cue the waterworks for your blogger. Sitting in a courtside seat, forced to express my emotions by squeezing my palms together all game (no cheering in press row), I finally lost it. This team deserved this win so much.

5:30 p.m. - I'll let Marsharee Neely, one of the Monarchs' many heroes, sum up what this tournament means to the team. "We live for moments like this," he says. "I have the net that we brought up to Richmond, the one we cut down last week (when ODU won the regular season title). Every night before bed I look at it, and say it's missing its twin. We need to cut down that other net."

Saturday, 6:45 p.m. - One win down, big game tomorrow. C'mon Monarch fans, make the drive

I'm back at home after an electric afternoon of basketball at the Richmond Coliseum. ODU took care of business against Towson, winning 86-56 in the first game of quarter-final Saturday of the CAA Tournament. Then Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason staged a back-and-forth duel in Game 2, with the hated VCU Rams prevailing 75-60.

Here's what I wondered, however. As the VCU-GMU game went back and forth, the respective student sections behind the basket pulsated with each exciting play, I thought our half-full student section was a little disappointing in retrospect.

Our team played fantastically, one of its best games of the year. The band was lively, the cheer and dance teams went all out, Big Blue brought it as usual. But we didn't attract as many student rooters as I would have liked to see.

Do you think it's too far to drive the 100 miles from Norfolk to the Richmond Coliseum? Allow me to introduce you to Ilias and Athena Iliadis.

This was the itinerary of their trip to watch son Trian play basketball for the Monarchs: Fly from their hometown of Perth, Australia, to Sydney. Then fly to San Francisco. Then Chicago. Then Philadelphia. Then Norfolk. The couple got to their seats at the Constant Center three minutes before tipoff of last week's rivalry game with VCU.

"It was 24 hours, and that's just the flying time," Athena said with a smile. "You get a lot of time to think, ponder and consider just how far you're coming."

It's worth the trip though. Division 1 basketball "is amazing. There's just no comparison to what we have back in Australia," Ilias said. "To see Trian fulfilling his dream, we're really proud of him."

They're returning to Perth a week from Monday, the day after the field is chosen for the NCAA Tournament. But the couple has made fast friends at every ODU basketball game and practice since they've been here.

"People will come up and just start talking to us. We don't know them, but they make us feel so welcome," Ilias said.

In ODU's game, Towson was coming off a solid performance, beating UNC-Wilmington 91-74 on Friday. They played us close for the first 10 minutes, as we struggled to keep lightning-quick point guard Troy Franklin away from the basket, and Towson hit a few long three-pointers.

But the Monarchs shared the basketball better than I've seen them all year. Five pass sequences that culminated in dunks brought the blue-and-white-clad fans to their feet over and over. Everyone scored for ODU, and the Monarchs outrebounded Towson by an incredible 60-26 margin.

"This time of year, you expect everybody's best shot, because it could be their last game of the year," said ODU Coach Blaine Taylor after the game. "They're actually one of the harder teams in the league to defend, because they drive the ball well, and can shoot those long threes.

"But today we just had players coming from all angles getting rebounds. That's part of the strength of us is we can rebound all five positions effectively."

Towson coach Pat Kennedy complimented our guys during his press conference. "That's a good team, with depth, size and strength," he said. "I didn't think they could extend their man-to-man defense to guard us so well on the perimeter. It really disrupted our offense and caused a lot of tipped balls. And they're such a great offensive rebounding team. They just keep coming and coming."

So on Sunday afternoon, it's Round 3 with our archrivals - ODU versus VCU. It's a 100-mile drive, and this is one of the best Old Dominion teams we've had in years.

Are you sure you want to miss it? If so, there's a couple of crazy Australian parents you need to talk to.

Saturday, 6 a.m. - Ready for 11 hours of hoops today

I didn't make it to Richmond for "Pillow Fight" Friday. I had to do my regular public relations job at ODU. But thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I felt like I was right there for all the action.

My friends who follow the Monarchs provided Facebook and Twitter updates of Friday's four games. ESPN's website provided up-to-the-second stats. Michael Litos of CAA Hoops was a one-man information dissemination machine, posting tweets, instant analysis and even video on his site, www.caahoops.com.

There's nothing like being there live, but I've gotta say, it was legitimately exciting to watch the ESPN GameCast refresh at the end of the Georgia State-Hofstra game, which Hofstra won 68-67 after a late basket and then a steal by forward Greg Washington. Our opponents today, Towson, walloped UNC-Wilmington 91-74, putting five scorers in double figures. Our game tips at noon. It's the first of four quarter-finals that will have riveted.

Today I'll be blogging at the Coliseum all day, and luckily for me, I'll have a companion. My dad Bill Moulson has caught the ODU basketball bug, so he decided to come all the way from North Bay, Ont., for the CAA Tournament. All season, we've bonded over basketball, dissecting wins and losses on the phone after I watch the games live, and my dad follows the team through the Internet, on radio or Monarch TV.

He's always been a sports fan, but this season, my dad has gotten as deep into the Monarchs as I have. I asked him what's been so captivating about ODU basketball.

"One of the first things I guess I noticed was the variety of fans that come to the games," he said. "I expected to see the crazy cheerers with their faces painted and white shirts. The thing I was really surprised with, and felt good to see, is the number of young parents bringing their kids to the game. It says a lot about the type of atmosphere the Monarchs provide."

My dad's a fan of the game on the court, but says he's still picking up the complexity of basketball strategy of the college game. He can appreciate one thing, however. "ODU really does a great job defensively. It's quite evident. I like watching them play defense, because you never know when they're going to make a steal and attack the basket. It's makes it exciting."

He's a fan of all the players, but my dad has found himself pulling for a couple of guys he thinks of as slight underdogs on the team. "You sort of expect Gerald Lee and a couple of the other starters to do well. But I like to see Darius James play well. He's a little guy, which I like, and he's had some games where he's really scored some key baskets. I like Neely a lot, too."

I asked my dad what he expects with his first day of live ODU basketball. He said he was going to have trouble sleeping Friday night. "I can't tell you how excited I am."

See, you can tell where I get my fanaticism from.

Friday 10:30 a.m. - ODU well represented in season-ending awards.

Last night's CAA Tournament banquet was like a convention gathering, only for basketball nuts like me. I arrived at the Marriott around the corner from the Richmond Coliseum and spotted a pile of familiar faces … some from seeing them on the court, others from getting to know them during the long season.

I hung out with a few folks from the ODU Athletics department for a few minutes, then simply wandered around the lobby, tall-people watching. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint and Hofstra coach Tom Pecora were having a lively chat. Around the corner, William and Mary coach Tony Shaver was talking live on ESPN radio, saying, naturally: "We've got great chemistry this year."

I think Shaver must introduce himself to people and say, "Oh, did I tell you about what great chemistry my team has…"

During the season, the guys on the ODU team walk around campus in their sweats - because they're often going from practice, to class, and back to the gym. So it was nice to see everyone dressed up for the occasion.

VCU forward Krill Pishchalnikov wore a tuxedo and black bowtie. His teammate Terrance Saintil wore a nice suit. He's tall and athletic looking, so I wouldn't have been able to pick him out, except that he's shaved his number 4 into the side of his hair.

When the banquet started, I sat with a bunch of media who cover the league and we compared notes on who we think can take this weekend's CAA Tournament. The consensus choice? ODU!!

After a sumptuous dinner it was time for the awards. CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager talked about what a great 25 years it's been for the conference, showing video of the CAA silver anniversary team, which features three ODU players - Odell Hodge, Alex Loughton and Petey Sessoms. Then it was time to honor the league's best from this season.

Trian Iliadis was selected to the CAA All-Academic team this year. The biochemistry major has a GPA near 4.0, and wants to be a pharmacist when he's done filling our prescription of deadeye outside shooter.

As I had predicted, Kent Bazemore was selected to the conference's All-Defensive team, recognizing his work this year guarding everyone from tiny point guards to bruising power forwards.

In a pleasant surprise, Ben Finney was selected as a CAA Third Team All-Star. The junior from Portsmouth doesn't always look pretty on the court - he's more apt to change the game by diving on the floor than hitting a shot. "I do all the little things to help my team win. I thought those things go unnoticed, but obviously they don't. All my hard work is starting to pay off, I guess," a smiling Finney said afterwards.

Gerald Lee ended up finishing third, behind Hofstra's Charles Jenkins, in CAA Player of the Year voting. That did make him comfortably a First-Team All Star. It's Lee's second straight season as an all-star. "It's such an honor, because we've got such great players in our conference. But the award that I want is on Monday," Lee said, speaking of the tournament championship game.

Tony Shaver was honored as the conference's coach of the year for his work with overachieving William and Mary. (And yes, he talked about what great chemistry his team has.)

At the end of the night, Dr. Jim Jarrett was honored by the CAA for his 40 years as ODU's athletic director, and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Jarrett is retiring this year, but doesn't plan on this being his last CAA Tournament.

"I'm obviously emotional, and I feel it's a special year. But I plan on coming in the future. I'm going to work part-time at Old Dominion, working out of the president's office, doing some part-time projects. So I plan on being back next year, but I'll be a spectator. I won't have any pressures and it's going to be fun to do that, too," Jarrett said.

He'd also really like ODU to win the darn thing in his sendoff year. "It would be real nice. But whether we win or not, we've had a great year, and hopefully we'll have an opportunity to continue with post-season play."

Thursday - 4:15 p.m. - Previewing "Pillow Fight" Friday

A bunch of Old Dominion University fans make the annual trip to the Richmond Coliseum for Friday's first-round games of the CAA Championship.

It's a nerve-wracking day for fans of the participating teams. Here's what makes it fun for ODU: We've never actually played on Friday.

Since the CAA has expanded to 12 teams, necessitating the extra round of games, Old Dominion has never finished worse than fourth in the league standings. The top four teams after the regular season earn a bye to Saturday's quarter-finals. The Friday games have been dubbed the "pillow fight" because they feature the bottom eight teams in the standings.

This year's Pillow Fight Friday has the added bonus of featuring our biggest rivals, Virginia Commonwealth University. I've talked to a bunch of ODU fans who can't wait to appear at Friday's VCU game, cheering for Delaware.

That's the second of four first-round games. Here's the full slate.

Noon, Towson vs. UNC-Wilmington -- I've seen both of these teams live once. Towson hung tough with us when they came to ODU late in the season, and with only seven players dressed that night. I was secretly hoping, as fouls piled up, that they'd have to finish the game with four guys, like the Hickory Huskers did during one game in "Hoosiers." I drove to Wilmington with a car-full of Monarchs fans to see us win at Trask Coliseum in January. After watching Benny Moss coach in person, I'm not surprised he got fired. What a sourpuss.

2:30 p.m. Delaware vs. VCU -- Let's be honest, Delaware will not win this game. They're a last-place team playing a Rams team that (having seen them play us tough, twice) I can't believe managed to lose seven games in conference this season. VCU is on our side of the draw, so I hope the Fighting Blue Hens can make them work just a little bit, to tire them out.

6 p.m. Georgia State vs. Hofstra -- This game features a Georgia State team that gave ODU everything it could handle last week in Atlanta (actually leading by three midway through the second half) with a Hofstra team that has come on strong, recently beating Northeastern in Boston on Senior Day. The winner plays Northeastern. I'm sure the Huskies are Georgia State fans for the day

8 p.m. James Madison vs. Drexel -- Likely the best match-up of the day. JMU came within a missed three-point shot of being the only team to beat us at the Ted all season. Yet they've struggled all season with injuries, inconsistency and idiocy. They recently had a reserve player suspended for throwing a snowball at a snowplow driver. We clobbered Drexel in Norfolk in our only meeting of the year, but the Dragons finished with 11 wins, including toppling Northeastern twice and VCU once. Sitting next to excitable Drexel coach Bruiser Flint during our game made for a fun afternoon. The two coaches are complete opposites in their sideline demeanor. JMU coach Matt Brady looks so bored, it's like he's waiting for a bus. Bruiser Flint looks like he's hijacking one.

The fun starts tonight for the tournament. I'm off to Richmond in the next half-hour or so for the CAA Championship banquet. I'll have a blog entry on the CAA's year-end awards tomorrow morning.

Thursday, 8 a.m. -- Off to Richmond today

Sometimes, it seems like the CAA Tournament has gotten here in a flash. Other times, I think what a long, up-and-down ride it's been following the team this year.

Regardless, it's here - the weekend-long event that, if we win it, will catapult us into March Madness, otherwise known as the NCAA Tournament. There has been some speculation that ODU will earn a spot even if we don't win the CAA Tournament final on Monday night. We hope we don't have to find that out.

After a short practice, the team leaves early this afternoon for Richmond. Thursday night is the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball banquet. Awards for Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and the league's all-star teams will be announced.

Monarchs star center Gerald Lee is in line for a spot on the league all-star team. And if sophomore wonder-guard Kent Bazemore doesn't get some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, then people haven't been watching the same league I have this season.

I've only lived in the region for a couple of years, but even as a new ODU employee, I was completely wrapped up in the Monarchs as they made it to the semifinals of the 2009 tourney.

Obviously, this isn't coach Blaine Taylor's first rodeo. "I've been in that spot numerous times, so I'm pretty comfortable being there," he says. "But I often have to sit back and reflect on what it's like for an 8-year-old kid sitting in the stands, what it's like for our players. What it's like for parents of our seniors, what it's like for our students, my staff that has put so much work in.

I've been down that trail so many times. It's somewhere where I've been, but new territory for a lot of people."

Practices this week have been short, crisp and competitive. On Monday, the team ran a fast-break drill, emphasizing taking the ball to the basket hard, and rebounding with ferocity. Then the players each found their shooting "spots" on the floor and stroked jump shot after jump shot.

I watched Josh Hicks, a recruit from North Carolina who's one of ODU's two redshirts this year, knock down 10 3-pointers in a row. At one point, five straight shots hit the same spot on the very back of the rim and dropped in, barely disturbing the net. In fact, it was a whole gym's worth of good shooting, as the guys were hitting them from everywhere. Coach Taylor stalked back and forth along the center line, making sure his charges were shooting with good form and focus.

Tournament play is difficult, because you can't take the time you normally would to prepare for an opponent, breaking down specific film of their offense. And it's a lot different to prepare for, say, William and Mary's matchup zone defense than it is to prep for VCU's relentless full-court press.

"What you do in the course of a season is prepare for opponents, but a lot of times you're preparing fundamentals, basics, rules, strategies that should be a quick turn into a next game," Taylor says. "When you get into tournament settings, you've got to be able to go from opponent, to opponent to opponent and rely on your playbook, rely on all the things you've been working on every year, and not have to reinvent the wheel every day."

Bazemore has had a breakout season for the Monarchs, becoming more confident on offense each game, while continuing to be his usual athletic, disruptive presence on the defensive end. The product of Bertie, N.C., has a score to settle with the CAA Tournament.

"I'm kinda anxious. I've got to calm myself down," Bazemore says. "I feel like I've got to redeem myself from last year. I really didn't play up to the par that I should have to help my team win last year. So it's going to be big to come out this year, the second time, to help my team win."

It's senior guard Marsharee Neely's fourth tournament. Despite earning an NCAA berth with the Monarchs in his freshman year, Neely has never been on a team that has "cut down the nets" after winning in Richmond.

When I first met Marsharee in September, he talked at length that this team liked being thought of as the favorite in the CAA, and that the team expected to be here - in first place going into the CAA Tournament.

"I'm used to it. I've had pressure on me off and on the court all my life. That's the type of person I am, I'm motivated to accomplish these goals," he says.

Neely's year has been sort of like the entire team's - some early success, some rocky stretches in the middle, and looking to finish strong. A senior, Neely has been in the difficult position of watching his friend and younger teammate Bazemore assume his spot in the starting lineup.

But last Saturday, when we knocked off VCU to clinch first place in the CAA, Marsh was the happiest guy in the building. Still wearing the mesh from the basket the team had cut down around his neck, Neely signed hundreds of autographs for kids after the game.

"I was extremely happy," he says. "At the end, I was talking to my boys, and saying, 'C'mon now. I'm right here. Y'all owe me this. You've gotta give it to me.' Kent looked at me and said 'I got you, man.' He hit a big free throw for us, and Frank (Hassell) did the same thing. They both hugged me and embraced me and said, 'That was for you.'"

Neely and Lee will play their final CAA Tournament, starting Saturday against the winner of Towson and UNC-Wilmington. They're hoping to finally cut down those nets in Richmond, too.

This article was posted on: March 4, 2010

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