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Minium: Jeff Jones Says Basketball Recruiting Class Will Make ODU “A Much Better Team” Next Season


ODU basketball coach Jeff Jones is bullish about next season.

By Harry Minium

Old Dominion basketball coach Jeff Jones announced the signing of his fourth recruit on Tuesday, and even though ODU hasn't signed any blue chippers, Jones said this recruiting class will make the Monarchs a better team next season.

Nor is Jones stopping at four. He is on the hunt among junior colleges and the transfer portal for one more player.

"We're looking for a player who will add size, a big player with a big body who will add more depth in the post," he said.

"We want someone who's eligible immediately. We want to use this scholarship to get bigger and older."

That means ODU likely will have five new faces on a team with 13 scholarship players. In other words, ODU will look far different next season than last, which ended with a 66-56 loss to Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA tournament.

ODU (13-19) led early on, but bereft of depth, FAU pulled away from the tired Monarchs. That's what happens when you're playing without a full deck.

Starters Marquis Godwin and Dajour Dickens left the team at the end of an eight-game losing streak in December and eventually transferred to Hampton. Godwin was ODU's fifth-leading scorer and Dickens the team's dominant inside defender.

A month later, ODU lost its best player when Jason Wade went down with a knee injury that required surgery.

Xavier Green, A.J. Oliver II, Joe Reece, Kalu Ezikpe, Jaylin Hunter, Malik Curry and Aaron Carver played hard and at times well. And after losing the two transfers, they said they became much closer.

But it was clear after Wade went down there wasn't enough depth, size, experience or sharp-eyed shooting for the Monarchs to get over the hump.

"We just didn't have enough bullets," Jones said.

Although none of the four signees likely will star right away, all have potential and the ability to help a team that will have a ton of experience. Carver was the only senior with appreciable playing time.

Everyone else returns.

"Between the core that we have returning and the players we have anticipated we will add, I fully expect to be a much better team," Jones said.

"Look at the core of players we have coming back. It's a pretty daggone solid core."

It is a very strong core and I'll get to that shortly.

How confident is Jones that the Monarchs will be better? ODU will play a difficult non-conference schedule next season, including a game against Arkansas of the SEC in Little Rock. The rest of the schedule hasn't been announced, but I've seen it and it will give ODU fans their best home schedule in years.

"We scheduled as if we're going to be good," Jones said. "And I believe we will be good."

Of the four signees, Mekhi Long is the most intriguing, even if it appears likely he won't be eligible right away. The 6-foot-7, wing forward from Bryans Road, Md., was a highly sought-after recruit in high school.

He played 30 games for the University of Rhode Island this past season, averaging 3.1 points and 2.3 rebounds, before entering his name in the transfer portal. He scored 13 points in a late-season game at Fordham.

Don't let his stats fool you. He has tremendous potential. ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports all rated him a 3-star recruit out of high school and he had offers from Virginia Tech, Kansas State, VCU, St. John's and Virginia Tech.

Jones said assistant coach John Richardson immediately reached out to him and his family.

"We didn't have a shot at him out of high school," Jones said, adding that ODU's growing reputation for developing transfers helped in recruiting Long.

B.J. Stith (Virginia), Brandan Stith (East Carolina), Trey Freeman (Campbell), Elbert Robinson III (LSU), Nik Biberaj (Christopher Newport), Randy Haynes (New Mexico Juco) and Jonathan Arledge (George Mason) blossomed into good players under Jones.

So have Curry (Palm Beach Juco) and Oliver II (Clemson).

"It was evident pretty quickly that we had what he was looking for," Jones said.

"I'm very confident he's the next one who will use that transfer year to springboard to an outstanding career."

Under current eligibility rules, he must sit out a season, but the NCAA is poised to allow all players a one-time transfer that provides for instant eligibility. That means he might be available right away.

A decision on whether that happens immediately, or next season, is coming on May 20th.

John Shanu II is also an intriguing recruit. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound power forward from Sam Houston High in Houston, Texas moves well, has a thunderous dunk and plays hard, but he is raw and needs to develop. He averaged 13 points, ten rebounds and three blocked shots.

The Texas Top 100 rated him the state's 66th-best player and that's not too shabby in a state with 30 million people.

"He's just scratched the surface of his potential," Jones said. "He's essentially new to the game and has a high upside."

Jones said Shanu II "is willing to be coached and to listen. I think he can and will become a very good player.

"But expectations can be a killer. John needs patience and needs to improve in baby steps. If he can do that, we'll all be happy with the finished product."

Brady O'Connell, a 6-foot-7 wing forward from Ravenscroft High in Raleigh, certainly has basketball genes and displays a ton of skill on highlight videos.

His brother, Alex, played at Duke, the same place where his father, Dave, also played (Alex has since transferred to Creighton). His brother, Shawn, played at UNC Wilmington.

O'Connell is a lefty with a deft shooting touch and the ability to score in different ways. And did I mention he's got an awesome dunk?

However, he has work to do in the weight room and on the court. O'Connell told the media when he signed with ODU that he knew he needed to get bigger and stronger and improve his 3-point shooting.

"Developing players is a big part of their program which is very important for me because I'm always in the gym trying to better myself," he said.

"Having a staff that supports and helps me in that is ideal."

Added Jones: "He will compete for playing time, but the big thing for Brady is developing and getting stronger and gaining experience."

ODU's final recruit, 6-2 guard David Strother, is a graduate transfer from UNC-Pembroke, a Division II school about 90 miles northwest of Wilmington.

Strother will add offensive firepower. He averaged 12.5 points and four rebounds and led the team with 3.4 assists on a team crafted to win with balanced scoring.

It was his shooting eye that attracted Jones' attention. He made 45 percent of his shots and 40 percent of his three-pointers, an area where ODU was anemic last season. Strother is slender at 175 pounds but is deceptively strong. As a fifth-year player (he redshirted his first season), he is the most experienced newcomer.

He's also a winner. He led his high school to a state championship and Pembroke to a 24-6 record last season.

"David had an extremely productive career at UNC-Pembroke," Jones said. "His maturity, experience and skill set will translate very well into Conference USA."

Back to the core.

Green was the MVP of the 2019 Conference USA tournament, when he helped lead ODU to the conference title and the NCAA tournament. Shooters are successful when they play with self-confidence. But without a lot of scoring help from his teammates, Green had a long stretch last season in which his confidence was shaken, and he shot poorly.

He rebounded the second half of the season and shot better and made a respectable 33 percent of his three pointers. I would expect him to be a star next season.

Curry had a great season, leading ODU in scoring (13.2 points), assists (4.0) and three pointers (51).  Oliver II played only the second half of the season but blossomed into a scorer both from outside and inside the lane. He averaged 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Green, Curry and Oliver II give ODU three very good wing players.

Rising juniors Ezikpe and Reece were the team's most improved players and are favorites to start next season inside.

Reece, a 6-9 forward from East St. Louis, Ill., and Ezikpe, a 6-8 forward from suburban Atlanta, both averaged about six points and four rebounds per game. Both have potential to play much better, especially Ezikpe, who may be ODU's best athlete and clearly has a high ceiling.

He has an NBA-like body and a great work ethic. Perhaps no one at ODU transformed his body in the weight room like Ezikpe did after his freshman season. He can be a dominant player for ODU. Reece was forced to fill Wade's shoes last season and showed much improvement.

The Monarchs lost six games by three points or fewer and 11 by seven or less. The ball often didn't bounce ODU's way, as it seemed to do a year earlier, but generally better teams with more depth tend to win close games.

The biggest unknown for next season is when Wade will return and how effective he will be. He had major surgery in February. I've seen athletes come off the same kind of surgery and get back into game shape in six or seven months. With others, it can take a year.

Wade has been working hard, and his work ethic is what makes the sophomore from Richmond so good. If it's possible for him to return, he will.

Regardless, ODU should be better next season. Despite being being short on depth, the Monarchs played with grit and determination last season. I never saw them quit. That bodes well for next season.

"Going through the experiences we went through last year will make us better," Jones said.

As will having enough bullets.

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