Follow All The NCAA March Madness Action with ODU Blogger Brendan O'Hallarn
If you have been "Living Like a Monarch," you know by now that the Old Dominion University men's basketball team is getting ready for first-round action in the NCAA Tournament, and that a number of fans will be joining in the Big Dance along with the players and coaches.
For the Monarch faithful, March Madness begins when ODU takes on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in New Orleans Thursday afternoon. Team blogger Brendan O'Hallarn, who's also a marketing and public relations specialist for ODU, has been following the Monarchs since September.
Now he's in the Big Easy with the team, clutching his "beads" for luck, hoping that ODU's season lasts just a few games longer.
It's already been one of the best seasons ever for coach Blaine Taylor and the ODU men's team. The Monarchs have a record of 26-8, and won both the regular-season title and end-of-season tournament in the Colonial Athletic Association.
ODU and Notre Dame play one of the first games of the entire NCAA Tournament, with tipoff at 12:25 p.m. Thursday. Brendan will do his best to capture the sights and sounds of the team's first appearance in the NCAAs since 2007.
To read the blogs Brendan has written throughout the season, including his firsthand account of the thrilling victory in the CAA Tournament, please visit the "Living Like a Monarch" blog site, at http://www.odusports.com/ot/living-like-a-monarch.html.
Check back frequently for updates as the team hopefully moves on in the NCAA Tournament.
Sunday, 2:45 a.m. - Here's to a heck of a ride
There's a crushing finality to college basketball season, for all except a select few teams lucky enough to win a post-season tournament.
A few hours ago, I was sitting directly behind the Old Dominion bench, and our fans were going bonkers. The Monarchs had made a stirring run, from 14 points down, to take the lead on the favored Baylor Bears in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in New Orleans Arena.
At a timeout, Coach Blaine Taylor sat down in front of his starters, and simply smiled. He didn't say a word, just looked each player right in the eyes, one by one. Then he put out a fist, and gently gave a bump to each of them.
A few hours later, I'm on the tarmac at Norfolk Airport, looking around for my luggage with the players, coaches, support staff, band and cheer teams, and donors. Our run is done; Baylor bested us 76-68.
After the game, I watched jubilant Baylor players and coaches hug on their way into the locker room down the hall from us after ending our season. Our team door remained closed for a long time while players and coaches shared time alone together. I stood silently with school officials, many who had watery eyes. While we waited, the high-powered Kentucky team came out of their locker-room, beginning to dance to the court (they actually danced) for their game against Wake Forest.
Tournament life grinds on. Sadly, we're not part of it. But this season has been the most incredible sporting experience of my life. That's thanks to 13 young men who poured their guts out on the court for Old Dominion all season.
Thanks to Thursday's upset win over the Irish, I got to "Live Like a Monarch" for one more game day. And with five minutes to go, it looked like the party might keep going next week in Houston. In no order whatsoever, here's some things I saw and soaked in on Saturday
Actually, we'll start on Friday night. I've struck up a friendship with Ted Alexander, ODU's great play-by-play guy. We headed out for dinner on Friday. Neither of us are rich, and both of us were tired, so we just looked for a little hole in the wall place. We sat on a patio, which was just a cordoned off section of sidewalk, and ordered our food. After sitting and chatting for 20 minutes I looked around the umbrella at the side of the building across the street. "Hey, look at this!" I said to Ted. They were projecting the television coverage of the NCAA Tournament onto the wall. So we could sit on a patio AND watch hoops.
Kentucky has a very good team this year. They demolished Wake Forest 90-60 after our game. All day, I ran into small groups of blue clad fans and talked hoops, asking to "borrow" them as fans for our game before the Wildcats took the court. They agreed, and a bunch of them talked about what a nice team we have this year. Felt good.
On my way out for breakfast, I ran into two nice ladies who had come to New Orleans for a reunion of sorts. One lives in Cincinnati, the other in North Carolina, but they knew each other from their time in the Big Easy. We enjoyed beignets and café au lait from Café du Monde, and they asked me all sorts of questions about Old Dominion University. They'd heard about our win, and just wanted to know: Is it a good school? Do you like working there? Are there nice people? Yes, yes and yes.
I showered back at the hotel after getting powder sugar all over me eating those beignets. I wish I'd waited in the lobby just a tiny bit longer. Two buses of students who left Norfolk at 3 p.m. on Friday arrived at the hotel, and I missed the explosion of Monarch pride as the two groups of fans met up.
The Monarch fan party across the street from the hotel was magical. The band and cheer teams performed with gusto, a large group of fans took pictures and shared memories of their week in New Orleans so far. Then the party got a turbo-boost when a big group of students who'd come back from exploring heard the ODU Fight Song and came running across the street to join the festivities. What a way to get ready for the game.
The game didn't start quite as we'd hoped it would. At one point, it was 10-1. But then we got a turnover and Kent Bazemore soared for an alley-oop pass from Darius James. Ted Alexander had been joking with him earlier about muffing an alley-oop in the Notre Dame game. No mistake here. Boom! Later in the game, Kent got out on a fast break and floated toward the basket, looking like he would do a short layup. At the very last second he elevated and rolled his wrist to dunk the ball. Our fans lost their minds.
Ben Finney has been the toughest guy all year for me to get good material to write about. He's a good guy, but he's very reserved around people he doesn't know well, possibly wary about sharing too much. But watching Ben on the court tells me more about him than any non-revealing interview. He hit his third three pointer of the second half to tie the game at 45-45. Our fans roared, and he ran back down the court pointing into our packed section, as if to say "That was for you guys! Thank you."
No, thank you, Ben.
(And Gerald. And Marsharee. And Darius. And Frank. And Keyon. And Kent. And Trian. And Marquel. And Chris. And Nick. And Josh. And Anton. And the coaches and staff and every fan of the ODU Monarchs who have made this such a memorable year.)
Saturday, 1 p.m. - So who are these Baylor Bears?
My wife can confirm this. I have watched an inordinate amount of college basketball this season. "Oh, Akron and Toledo are on ESPNU? I'm in." I am very fortunate my wife is so patient with my obsession.
Strangely enough, I hadn't seen one second of action of the Baylor Bears, today's opponent for the Monarchs, before their first-round game versus Sam Houston State. In fact, my first look at the Bears was a very up-close one.
As the ODU players and coaches charged off the court following our upset win over the Irish, I followed them, to get the jubilant initial moments in the team locker room. I rounded the corner and headed under the grandstand, and ran smack into the middle of a double line of Baylor players, who were waiting to take the court for their warm-ups.
Unsmiling, the players chanted "BAAAAY-lorrrrr! BAAAAY-lorrrrr!" in the seconds before heading out to the court we had just left. There was something overtly intense about their guys. A fierceness. Then I watched the Bears use their supreme athleticism to beat a scrappy Sam Houston State team in their first round game. This is no cupcake we face today. They're the three seed in this region for a reason.
Here's what we're up against. Baylor is 25-7, and is in the top 25 of both national polls. The Bears average 77.6 points per game, which is 25th in the country. They're in the top 10 in the entire nation in field goal percentage, hitting shots at a 48.9 percent clip.
Baylor's floor leaders are its two guards, Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn. Dunn leads the team in scoring, averaging 19.4 per game. Carter leads in assists, averaging 6.1 per game. Ironically, it's Baylor forward Ekpe Udoh who's attracting the most attention from NBA scouts. A junior, Udoh is projected to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft if he leaves school early.
Udoh's a leaper. He attracted the attention of our leaper on Thursday. Our guys got their first good look at Baylor after their game with Notre Dame was done. The players sat together in a section behind one of the baskets, doing a little advance scouting.
ODU guard Kent Bazemore, no slouch himself, said one thing leapt out at him "All the athleticism, man," he said. "Everybody's playing up above the rim." Bazemore noticed when Baylor's Udoh came down the middle of the Sam Houston State defense for a dunk attempt. "His head was up above the rim. We said, 'Man, we've gotta stop that.' But if we box out and play good defense and cut down on that, then his head won't be above the rim against us."
Saturday, 9 a.m. - Two other teams are "competing" in New Orleans for ODU
With the ODU-Notre Dame game incredibly tight in the final minutes, I looked to the end line at our cheer and dance teams. It took a second to figure out what they were doing. Without the aid of the Buckwheat Boyz soundtrack, our cheer team and band were doing "Ice Cream and Cake." It was the under-four timeout after all, and tradition is tradition.
It's an underrated part of the college basketball environment. Our cheer and dance teams plus pep band bring a great deal of atmosphere to the Constant Center throughout the season. In the post-season, we'll say this because we're in New Orleans, they've kicked it up a notch.
"People don't realize this when they see our band perform during the season, and wonder why we don't do this, or don't do that. But we've built our program specifically for the NCAA Tournament," said Tim Minter, drum major and student director with the Old Dominion Pep Band.
The NCAA gives a thick rule book to teams who qualify for the Tournament. Each band must have 30 members, and no more than 30 members. No amplification of any kind is allowed. Minter said ODU has two standing, 30-member bands, for the exact reason that this week necessitates - so one band can perform for the men's games, and the other can perform for the women's games.
And since Minter is a crazed sports fan, he did both this week. "The process was epic," he said. "I did the women's NIT game in Norfolk on Wednesday. But I hadn't missed a men's game at home or in the playoffs all season. I went online and looked up fares, and the only flight I could find that got me here on time left at 5:40 a.m."
Minter arrived from the airport, his hair looking like Thomas Dolby's, a mere three minutes before the bus left for the arena. Why put himself through such a madcap trip? "Because this is my school. I support my boys."
Minter swam and played baseball at Granby High in Norfolk, and has loved sports his whole life. But other band members like Allyson Vaccaro have been bitten by the bug, too. Vaccaro transferred to Old Dominion University from decidedly non-sporting Misericordia University in Pennsylvania.
She came for the Speech Pathology program, but Vaccaro discovered the ODU Pep Band during football season, and has loved playing basketball games as well. For one thing, it's taught her a game she knew almost nothing about. "I never knew I would get so into it. Now I think I could tell you a ton about basketball. It's amazing," she said.
During Monday's game, the band and cheer teams did a great job. Our one, packed section of ODU fans responded to their every instruction, standing along with the fight song, chanting "O! D! U!" Vaccaro said it's so gratifying when the crowd responds to what the band is trying to do.
For the students of the band and cheer teams, it's also been a great experience being in New Orleans. The two teams went on a bus tour of New Orleans on Friday, and it was part history, part humor, and part stark reminder that this fun city is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
Cheer team members Ashleigh Spencer and Chrissy Smith said it was eye-opening and amazing at the same time.
"Katrina happened five years ago, and so many of these homes haven't even been rebuilt yet," Spencer said. "There were entire streets of empty lots where there used to be houses, and there was just nothing there," Smith said. "I was very surprised. I didn't think it would that bad here, still."
She said on boarded-up homes, spray paint labels indicated people who had died during the Katrina deluge.
But the tour also had an upbeat tone, Spencer said. Dottie, their tour guide, was a total New Orleans historian, and reveled in showing the homes that movie star Brad Pitt had spent millions of his own money to build, for city residents who remain after Katrina. Dottie mentioned that the population of the city is more than 100,000 less than it was before Katrina hit.
Spencer said New Orleans was a great place to host the NCAA Tournament. "It's so fun, it's a great city, and it's great to be here to cheer for ODU," he said.
Friday, 2:30 p.m. - Thursday's win was big for ODU, in a lot of ways
It's been said that athletics is the "front porch" of your university. If that's the case, Old Dominion's front porch is presently festooned with those really cool copper lamps that everyone has down here, along with streamers, balloons, and a big horn announcing: "Hey, look at us!"
It's safe to say that winning a game in the NCAA Tournament, if you're a school like Old Dominion University, has some residual benefits. And they aren't limited to the basketball team.
I spread out half a dozen national newspapers as I ate breakfast. There's ODU guard Darius James fighting for a loose ball in USA Today. The Ted Heads are in their painted-up glory on a section front of the Wall Street Journal. Every national paper and broadcast outlet has mentioned ODU's upset over Notre Dame.
ODU President John R. Broderick said he received emails and texts from colleagues in higher education from across the country after the big win, some who he hadn't spoken to in years.
"I probably, after that game got about 50 text messages," Broderick said. "And these would be people from all over the country, who said they saw the game and saw the score."
Broderick said in the 1980s, Boston College experienced what was known as the "Flutie Factor," where the publicity received by Heisman-trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie boosted student applications, donations and interest in the school across the board.
"I think the years that Doug Flutie was there it translated to a significant increase in applications from students who wanted to go there. It's just the elevating of the pride piece," Broderick said.
And ODU's exposure through sports is overwhelmingly positive, helped by the fact that ODU sports teams recruit good kids, who work hard in the classroom as well as their sport and stay out of trouble, Broderick said.
Senior Associate Athletic Director Debbie White said it's not like ODU's athletic department is suddenly rich with a single tournament win. However, White said the school saw how the increased exposure with the football team last fall led to more revenue in terms of sponsorships and alumni donations.
"When a team wins a round in the NCAA Tournament, those things can go up exponentially," she said. Also, it's advertising you can't afford to buy. You have to say, Old Dominion Athletics has had a heck of a year. And this is just the cherry on the sundae right now."
Alonzo Brandon is ODU's Vice President for Development and Alumni. He pulled out his phone to show me a picture of a local guy's Old Dominion ID card from years ago. He was so excited for our team's win over Notre Dame that he tracked down the team and showed off his bona fides as an ODU alum.
Development offices will use things like athletic success as a fund-raising tool. But Brandon said the real payoff doesn't come in immediate dollars.
"It's connecting back to the university. Reaching out to our alumni, so they can feel like they're a part of this," Brandon said. "Whether by helping out with the Athletic program, identifying recruits, and it's not just Athletics, it's academically, too.
"It's marketing your whole school. You can't put a value on faces, and pictures in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and ESPN."
Associate Head Coach Jim Corrigan is in charge of recruiting for the Monarchs. He said a win like yesterday's will help with the kids they've already made contact with, "but it's not like we're suddenly competing with the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world."
However, it certainly couldn't hurt to send a text message like "Did you see the game?" to prospective future Monarchs.
"It's probably made people sit up and take notice a little bit more. They might be a little bit more receptive than they were a week ago," Corrigan said.
"And the recruits we signed in November are excited, and excited to be a part of our program. It's a very, very exciting thing, but I think what's helped our program more than anything is we've had a sustained level of success."
Even teams that spend all season trying to beat our brains in are rooting for us now. Colonial Athletic Association conference commissioner Tom Yeager said a win in the NCAA Tournament is worth about $1.3 million for the conference over six years, split among the 12 CAA teams. "That's why, when you miss a shot at the end that would have won it, you'll see a conference commissioner do this," Yeager said, pantomiming banging his head on the table.
But aside from the raw dollars, wins matter for conferences like the CAA. "One of the biggest things about George Mason's run to the Final Four (in 2006) was it boosted the credibility of the entire conference," Yeager said. "A lot of people on the East Coast think college basketball starts and ends at the ACC and Big East. So there are many more intangibles of something like this, which are more beneficial than anything financial."
All year, I've chatted with Aseem Rastogi, student leader of the ODU spirit group the Monarch Maniacs. He mentioned repeatedly how it's sometimes hard to get busy students to stop and pay attention to any of the ODU teams, even our men's and women's basketball teams. That problem doesn't exist this week.
"Seeing hundreds of people flock to Webb Center and watch this game, living and dying with every possession, it was unlike anything I've ever seen here," Rastogi said. "Just looking around the room yesterday, there were people from all walks of life coming together for those two and a half hours to support the Monarchs. It is something that has been a long time coming, and the more we win the better it will get. We are doing big things it truly is our time."
In fact, Rastogi and the Maniacs predicted this, in a way. The Maniacs had some rubber bracelets, like the "Livestrong" logo that Lance Armstrong wears. He gave them out to the guys on the team at the first practice of the year.
The bracelets say two words: "Our Time."
Thursday, 8 p.m. - ODU 51, Notre Dame 50. I'm running out of ways to praise this team.
The Old Dominion Monarchs are a national darling, after springing an upset over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But things like this don't happen by accident.
I watched this team run sprints at 7 in the morning last September. I saw them hang together after losing three straight games early in the season. I saw the focus and determination (during finals week) when the Monarchs put a game plan together to upset Georgetown. I saw the Monarchs shake off discouraging losses in conference play, responding to each with some of their best games of the year.
I'm listening to the guys on ESPN talk about how impressed they are with ODU, with our guys' size, toughness and ability to fight back after falling behind the Irish. Welcome aboard, national media. We're glad you noticed.
If you didn't watch the game, you probably aren't interested in reading 2,000 words of diary from me about one of the best days of my sporting life. But if you're as crazy about this team as I am, and couldn't be in the New Orleans Arena today, then I don't think I could write too much. You'll never forget this day, either. Let me tell you about mine.
O-dark-30 - I pop awake in total excitement. Check the time. 4:11 a.m. I didn't get to bed until well after midnight. As excited as I am, I think I need just a little more sleep.
7:45 a.m. - Coffee. Thank you, coffee.
8:20 a.m. - Mark Linn has been everywhere this week. I'm slouched on a comfy couch in the upstairs lounge of the W Hotel, working on the blog that I posted pregame. Linn plops down next to me. "Didn't I tell you? I told you we'd be here," he says. Linn has cancer, and ODU coach Blaine Taylor and the team have taken him into the family this season. Ben Finney cut him a link of one of the nets at the CAA Championship in Richmond. For years, Linn was a huge supporter of ODU basketball, hosting recruits at the Harbor Club, which he managed.
He's with the team this week. "I'd have been here if I was on a gurney," Linn says. In fact, he looks better than I've seen him all season.
9:35 a.m. - The ODU Pep Band is smoking today. I'm at the pre-game party for Monarch fans at the hotel. Fans in blue and white munch on breakfast while the band plays and the cheer team goes through their routines. There's the sort of nervous energy in the air that you'd feel in school before an exam. And in a way, this is the team's exam. Hopefully not the final one.
Sandy Wiley, BS in Psychology '70 is at the party. "We decided that it's a bucket list item for us. We had to be here. Having ODU play their first-round game in New Orleans was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she says.
Ramsay Young has been reading every scrap of coverage he can about the team, and enjoys that ODU is a trendy upset pick today. "That's what I've been telling everyone," he says. "The luck of the Irish ended yesterday (St. Patrick's Day), today's the luck of the Monarch."
Mike LaRock, Business Administration '85, accompanied colleagues and a client to New Orleans from his job as Chief Financial Officer of Sysco Foods. "We're here to show everybody else what this school and its team is all about. Rad Williamson, a senior marketing associate with Sysco, used to go to ODU games back in the 1960s with his dad.
Steve Ballard attended ODU for a year in the 1970s, but left for a business opportunity. That year obviously made an impression, as Ballard is a big donor for the school now; his name adorns the ODU football stadium. "I just like seeing all the young kids playing with such joy, and rooting with such passion," Ballard says. "I've seen the university change so much in the past 10 years. There's so much more at ODU for those kids now."
11:15 a.m. - I'm on the bus, this time with the cheer and dance teams. Director of bands Alex Trevino regales us with stories of band trips gone wrong at other schools. Happy that's not us. I'm surprised he hasn't brought one of those multi-kid leashes that daycares use to corral kids on outings.
10:30 a.m. - Our bus pulls up to the arena to an anthill of activity. Personnel from CBS scurry around making final preparations for the live national broadcast. We go through credential check and I find my spot on press row. The guys are already out on the court shooting around. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame's star forward, walks right past me. He is BIG. He's forward Frank Hassell's height and width, but is even big back to front. He's going to be a load for our front line today.
11 a.m. - Twenty-five minutes to tipoff and I wonder where the fans are. A healthy contingent of ODU fans is clustered in one section, but the entire upper deck is empty. I can't help but wonder if there wouldn't be more fans at the Ted, even if ODU wasn't playing.
11:15 a.m. - Ten minutes to tipoff. I go back in the tunnel to watch the players in the final moments before they take the court for player introductions and tipoff. They're quiet, as usual. Guard Ben Finney can't have that, and starts screeching playfully, a big smile on his face. That brings a tiny bit more energy to the huddle. Kent Bazemore and Nick Wright do a jumping body bump. The players each put an arm in the air. "Play ball!" they cheer, and line up to jog out onto the court. Frank Hassell steps out of line and extends a giant fist at me. We bump. Let's play ball.
Our first possession - I'd been telling everyone this week a little stat I figured out by going through an entire season of game play-by-plays - when we hit our first three-pointer, we're undefeated. Sure enough, first possession and Finney's got a three lined up. Thud. I jinxed us. In fact, both teams start cold from the field, and it's only 5-4 Notre Dame at the first official timeout.
12-6 Notre Dame -- Carleton Scott follows a missed three pointer with a thunderous alley-oop dunk of the rebound. The ODU fan in me hates that. The basketball fan in me kind of likes it. This ain't Delaware we're playing today. We're still ice-cold from the field. Darius James misses a three. Hassell misses a short turnaround. Blaine Taylor's only about 15 feet away. I think I heard him grind his teeth.
Timeout Old Dominion - We've switched to zone defense, and slowed down Notre Dame's ingenious "five out" offense, which arrays all five players on the perimeter. I know it's called that because it's so empty in this arena, I could hear Irish coach Mike Brey calling it out. At least our modest contingent of Monarch fans is doing their part. Our section is easily the loudest in the building. However, no defense in the world can stop a team where someone is making 24-foot shots. Ben Hansbrough of the Irish does that and we're down nine, 26-17.
Halftime, 28-22 UND - Keyon Carter dropped a three-pointer with a minute to go in the half, our first three after seven straight misses. We really needed that. Blaine and the other coaches don't look super-thrilled leaving the court, nor should they be. We've been sloppy with the ball, and our shots wouldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Good thing our defense showed up today. We held Notre Dame to two points in the last four minutes of the half.
Here come the big guys - We start the second half with a lineup of Lee, Hassell, Carter, Finney and Bazemore. Everyone's six-five or taller. Shoot over that zone, Irish! Finney makes two free throws and we're within three. A few minutes later, Keyon beats the shot clock with a long jump shot and we have our first lead in a long time, 32-31. Our fans roar. Everyone in our section is standing. But the Irish aren't going anywhere. Another Hansbrough three and then a steal and dunk and UND is ahead by four again.
Frank Hassell takes over - Our big forward grabs a ball on the floor and lurches to the basket. Fighting through the basket, he scores a layup and is awarded a free throw. He hits it to tie us up again at 43. Best part of that sequence? Watching Frank's dad, Frank Sr.,pumping his fists wildly. He hugs and high-fives everyone within three rows, ending his one-man Mardi Gras by pointing at the court and yelling, no doubt saying something like "That's my boy!!!!"
Darius for three!!! - Our starting point guard hits a three-point shot. Our fans explode. Taylor and assistant coach Rob Wilkes pump their fists passionately on the bench. The best part of this sequence? Watching Darius' backcourt mate Finney. Settled into the zone, Finney clapped his hands as the Irish dribbled the ball up the court towards him, with the biggest smile I've seen on his face all season. That guy loves, LIVES to compete.
My seatmate has stopped watching - I'm on press row next to Debbie White, ODU's Senior Associate Athletic Director. We've got a narrow lead, and we're at the free throw line. She refuses to watch. As Gerald misses, then misses another, then Darius misses, Debbie clasps her hands and looks down. Finally, Keyon Carter is fouled with 10 seconds to go and makes them both, putting us up by three. "You can watch now," I say.
I'm crying again - I can't help it. I love this team so much. They never, ever quit. They're the toughest team I've ever seen in my life. The ODU fans hug and high-five. Officials from the Colonial Athletic Association are as happy as we are. It's been a while since our conference has won one, and the win will mean millions of dollars in extra revenue for the CAA.
Inside the locker room, the players watch a closed-circuit video feed of the team press conference, making fun of Hassell's deer-in-the-headlights look. Darius James is my dad's favorite player, so I dial my dad and hand Darius the phone. That was almost as big a highlight for my dad, watching back in Canada, as the game itself.
In his press conference, Taylor talks about the effort both teams expended on the court. "I think it reflects the magic of March, the way the two teams battled. One of the officials turns to me at the two-minute mark and said it's been a heck of a game, and I really think it was." Notre Dame coach Brey pays tribute to the Monarchs. "Give a lot of credit to Old Dominion. I thought they played really well and tough and made veteran plays at key times."
One big section of dopey smiles - After the press conferences were done, and I grabbed a piece of pizza from the team room (worry makes me starving) I headed over to visit with my friends in the ODU fan section. I bump fists with Frank Hassell, Sr., telling him: "That was your boy out there." Tears are in his eyes, too. In the fan section, everyone with ODU gear has the same expression on their face. We love our team, we know how good they are. But everyone's face says, "Did that just happen?"
It did. Our Monarchs. Old Dominion, Hail!
Thursday, 9 a.m. - A season's worth of dedication gets put to the test today
Game day. Our tournament debut is a few hours away.
I'm sitting in the upstairs lobby of our New Orleans Hotel. The players, hair still askew from the early wakeup call, have just walked by, going back to their rooms for the final moments before their bus leaves for New Orleans Arena. A handful of Athletics officials and fans have drifted through the lobby, making small talk about everything EXCEPT our big game with Notre Dame in a couple of hours.
There's a spirit party for fans starting in an hour or so. In the moments before, when I'm just pecking my thoughts, I look for signs that today will be our day. I found a big one last night.
After a great dinner hosted the folks from Athletics last night, I stopped back at the hotel and changed into one of the handful of ODU basketball t-shirts I own. In this case, it was my lucky "Slam the Rams" shirt from the VCU game.
I grabbed a little video camera and headed to Bourbon Street. I was looking for large groups of Notre Dame fans. I wanted to talk a little friendly trash in advance of the big game.
Instead, here's what happened: A guy in a Michigan sweatshirt, unsolicited: "You guys have to BEAT the Irish for us." A few yards further down the street, a big group of fans in Kentucky gear (there were thousands out last night) started an "O!-D!-U!" chant as I walked by. A bunch of older dudes in Missouri kit, whose team isn't even playing here, told me they'd adopted ODU as their team for the week. One of the team managers walked by and told me "this is the best night of my life," and it appeared to be.
There were a kajillion people in green for St. Patrick's Day, but they didn't appear to be Notre Dame fans. And other than Irish fans, I think everyone in the arena today will be rooting for us.
Getting ready to play Notre Dame this week has been nostalgic for me. When I was a little guy, my dad and I watched a basketball game that I was told was a "big game." Up in Canada back in the 1970s, we rarely got college basketball on television. One of my memories of the game was that one team had green shamrocks on their shorts. Being of Irish descent, I rooted for them.
Years later, I realized that three-year-old Brendan had watched Adrian Dantley and Notre Dame end UCLA's 88-game winning streak. From that day forward, I was a Notre Dame fan. In high school, I used my paper route money to purchase a No. 4 Notre Dame jersey, the number worn by my favorite player, smooth point guard David Rivers.
Before moving to the area, if you'd asked me for my favorite team, I would have said the Irish. But now, after "Living Like a Monarch" this season, getting to know the passion our guys bring to everything they do, I couldn't be less conflicted.
I may be of Irish heritage, but my blood bleeds Blue now. Go Monarchs.
Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. - Back from practice, players ready for the big show tomorrow
It's a lot of work going to two basketball practices an hour apart in gyms a few miles from each other. Good thing we had that police escort.
Yes, ODU Monarch basketball has arrived at the big stage. It's less than a day from our NCAA Tournament opener, against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Today was media and final walk-through day, the players' first chance to shoot on the rims in the New Orleans Arena, and national reporters' first chance to pronounce Uusikaupunki, the city In Finland that's the home town of the Monarchs' Gerald Lee.
After a team breakfast, we boarded a bus for the short drive to the home arena of the New Orleans Hornets. En route, players loudly debated whether all-star guard Chris Paul will stay with New Orleans or leave as a free agent.
We pulled up to the loading dock where the CBS production trailers were lined up, giving me a sense of the enormity of the operation of broadcasting the tournament.
As the players went into the locker room to tape up for shootaround, I sprinted out to the nearly empty court, smelling the new coat of varnish as I stepped on the shiny wood floor. The 19,000 seats were nearly empty. Only a few curiosity seekers were checking out our practice, the first of the day for the eight teams playing on Thursday.
But the entire arena had the feel of a big event, with staff doing final checks of audio and video equipment. And hey, there were Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas, who'll call the games on CBS. I sidled up to Bilas. He LOVES our team. "Really solid. They rebound like crazy, they're very good defensively," Bilas said. "They're unselfish and they've got really good pieces. (Coach) Blaine Taylor, I've known for a really long time, he does a really good job. The one thing they do that you can't simulate is they really go after the ball."
You could feel the excitement in Bilas' voice as we talked. He's got a great slate of games to call on Thursday, starting with ours, then following with an athletic Baylor team, then an evenly matched game between Texas and Wake Forest, and then a chance to see possibly the country's best team, the University of Kentucky. "If I could have picked any of the eight sites to do, this would have been it," Bilas said.
Meanwhile, Coach Blaine Taylor and seniors Lee and Marsharee Neely were doing their press conferences, Taylor apologizing for being late by joking that he had dropped off a bunch of Notre Dame players on Bourbon Street to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. "I told them don't miss the game tomorrow; it starts at 2:30," he said, laughing, about the game that actually starts three hours earlier.
Neely and Lee are the only two Monarchs who've played in the NCAA Tournament, three years ago in Buffalo. National reporters remarked that the team has achieved some national notoriety this season as a team that could pull upsets in the NCAAs. Neely said they embrace that pressure. "It's motivation hearing things like that. You tend to play with a chip on your shoulder," he said.
After shootaround, the guys hopped on the team bus for a 15-minute drive to nearby Loyola University for a more physical practice. The drive took us through an area of New Orleans where large sections are still not fixed up from Hurricane Katrina. Chatter on the bus got quiet as we looked left and right at abandoned homes, some with the roofs still half-off.
Loyola University is in the Garden District, an area of the city that features big, beautiful homes. It also is an older neighborhood, so the infrastructure isn't as bus friendly as you'd hope. We arrived at the Loyola University rec center, and our bus driver couldn't get over the concrete median into the parking lot. We sat. "Where's Mikey when you need him?" Neely said of team bus driver Mike Raspberry, who drove through three blizzards this season.
Practice was crisp. The coaches ran the team through different offensive and defensive sets, and were off the court after 45 minutes. Now back at the hotel, they'll screen film of the Irish at 5 p.m., then they'll chill out at the hotel tonight, before an ear-splitting (for students) 7 a.m. wakeup call on Thursday.
Oh, and they'll all be wearing new socks.
This is one of those things that just make you shake your head. Mark Brown, Associate Athletic Director for Business and Finance, made an emergency trip this afternoon to buy socks for the team. The NCAA branding police informed the team that the ODU players' socks weren't in compliance with Tournament rules, because they have logos on both sides.
"We're at practice and an NCAA rep says 'I don't like your socks. They have two logos," Brown said. "I said, 'Are you pulling my chain?' They said no. So I'm going on a sock-buying spree this afternoon."
Those are the types of logistical things that I never considered for one second before following the team this season. I never imagined basketball involved so much more than just rolling the balls on the court. Brown and I chatted about the complexity of hosting an NCAA women's tournament site, hosting a women's NIT game featuring the Monarchs, and taking a trip with the men's team to New Orleans, "where everyone wants to go," he said.
"It's literally all hands on deck," Brown said. "I like sending someone from administration whenever we travel with our teams, because you never know what might come up."
Such as a shopping trip. To buy socks.
Wednesday, 8 a.m. - Hello from New Orleans
"I gotta feeling, that tonight's gonna be a good night"
---- The Black-Eyed Peas
We're here in New Orleans, getting ready for some NCAA hoops. The Old Dominion Monarchs play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tomorrow in their first game (of hopefully six) in the NCAA Tournament.
After flying to New Orleans through Baltimore last night, I woke up to the sound of traffic from the street below. I'm in one of North America's great cities. Our fans have started to arrive. Notre Dame fans are out in force.
Fans of Kentucky, Texas, Baylor, Wake Forest and the other teams will soon fill the French Quarter.
To top it all off, it's St. Patrick's Day. Tonight IS going to be a good, good night.
For the Monarchs, however, it's a business trip. After a spirited practice on Tuesday, the team, coaches, support staff, band and cheerleaders arrived at the airport for their charter flight. I was leaving at the same time, so it was nice to see the students all dressed up.
The players hope to make their impression on the court. We've been a trendy upset pick for the experts who are prognosticating the first round of the Big Dance.
Fifteen years ago today, another ODU team was exactly nobody's choice to win its first-round game, against top 10-ranked Villanova. But that's exactly what those Monarchs did, winning 89-81 in triple overtime in one of the great first-round games in NCAA Tournament history. That's the last time an Old Dominion men's team won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Associate Head Coach Jim Corrigan was on the ODU coaching staff back in 1995. "It was a great opportunity for us," Corrigan recalled yesterday. "They had just won the Big East Tournament by about 25 points over UConn, they had four guys that went onto the NBA. It was an extremely daunting task."
Corrigan said the Monarchs had one thing in their favor - the players truly believed they could win the game. "We had a very veteran team, and we played with a great deal of poise throughout the game," Corrigan said. "There were several times that it looked like it was lost, but our guys hung tough and made plays. We just kind of hung around until we got a chance to make some plays to win the game and we did."
Corrigan said an interesting thing happened as the game went on. More and more of the crowd started to pull for the underdog, 14th seeded Monarchs. "By the time the game was over, we had the vast majority of the crowd on our side," he said. "I think they appreciated the intensity, the effort, and obviously in the early rounds, people want to see the upset."
Petey Sessoms, who was recently honored as one of the Colonial Athletic Association's 25 best players, scored 35 points in the win, including a key three-point play in the third overtime. But no upset is possible without a total team effort.
Mike Jones was a guard on the ODU team that day. Now in his 12th year as head basketball coach and recruiting coordinator at DC-area power DeMantha High, Jones remembers the complete and total fatigue at the end of the game. "Dave Harvey and I were roommates for the trip," Jones said. "We didn't get back to the hotel until way after midnight, and we all got pizzas in our room. I remember falling asleep and waking up with my warmup clothes still on and a pizza box next to me. I hadn't even taken off my shoes!"
That fatigue meant ODU "ran out of gas" against Tulsa in the second round, Corrigan said. "There were some lessons to be learned," he said. "You need to know how to handle yourself with what's coming up.
"It's a whole different experience going to the NCAA if you're lucky enough to win a game. It's a whole different experience than anything you've experienced all year long. It's hard to describe, it's just different. Hopefully, this year's kids will be lucky enough to experience it."
Jones is rooting hard for ODU on Thursday, but he does feel the tug of the Irish. Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey is an alumnus of DeMantha, and one of Jones' players has committed there for next season. "He and I have been talking a little trash to get ready for the game," Jones said, laughing.
The lesson Jones took from the huge upset is one he hopes this year's ODU team knows as well - anyone can pull the upset in the NCAA Tournament. "Give a good coach like Coach (Blaine) Taylor three or four days to prepare for an opponent, and they can put a game plan together to win. The ODU players have a chance to do something they will never forget."
We'll leave for the hotel in a few hours. The team will conduct interviews for the national media at the New Orleans Arena, then hold a short shootaround, to get used to the rims and the shooting background where the games will be played on Thursday. Then the Monarchs will drive to nearby Loyola University for a brisk practice, then back at the hotel by mid afternoon, to get ready for the next day's game.
Fans of the team have already started to arrive in the Big Easy. On Thursday morning before the big game, ODU Athletics, the Big Blue Club and the ODU Athletic Association will hold a fan party at the W Hotel at 333 Poydras Street in New Orleans, starting at 9:30 a.m.
This article was posted on: March 17, 2010
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