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Minium: ODU Basketball Team Prepares for Biggest Games of the Season This Weekend at Western Kentucky


By Harry Minium

NORFOLK, Va. - This has been the most unpredictable and, in many ways, the most miserable college basketball season ever.

Hundreds of games were postponed as COVID-19 infections spread. Players at some schools opted not to play and more than a dozen programs shut down for the winter.

And with few or no fans in the stands, the games have lacked atmosphere that even the fake crowd noise and fan cutouts can't paper over.

Powerhouses such as Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State and Kentucky have struggled and it's possible that some won't make the NCAA tournament. And that just doesn't happen under normal circumstances.

Players everywhere have had to deal with hardships they've never before experienced, and it's affected different teams differently.

But the good news is that Old Dominion University's players have, for the most part, emerged unscathed from their ordeal this winter. They have sheltered in place in their dormitory rooms or apartments when not playing or practicing. No more parties or hanging out with friends. It took extraordinary discipline to not go out month after month and yet they did not break ranks.

Austin Trice

Because they were so careful, they missed only a handful of games because of the pandemic. No one knows for sure but the players who sat out likely were infected in an airport or a hotel.

Given the circumstances, and ODU's hot streak as it enters the final week of the regular season, coach Jeff Jones deserves a ton of praise for what his Monarchs have accomplished.

Coach of the Year in Conference USA? That remains to be seen. But he should be a candidate.

Things began poorly when, about a month before play began, ODU lost Jason Wade, its best scorer, rebounder and defensive player, to an Achilles Tendon injury. With a mishmash of returning players and some key transfers, Jones had to do a lot of mixing, teaching and grinding to turn his Monarchs into a cohesive team.

ODU's home crowds generally give the Monarchs a substantial home advantage but with the state limiting crowds to just 250 fans, home games almost seemed like a neutral court.

In spite of those hardships, ODU prepares for its final two regular-season games at Western Kentucky on Friday and Saturday with the East Division title clearly up for grabs.

WKU (15-5 overall, 8-2 Conference USA) certainly will be favored against ODU. The Hilltoppers host Florida International Sunday and Monday.

ODU (14-6, 10-4) did what it had to do this weekend in sweeping a pair of games from last place Middle Tennessee in the Monarchs' final two home games of the season.

Mekhi Long

The Monarchs likely will have to sweep both games against WKU to claim the East Division. But this is precisely the kind of challenge the Monarchs should embrace, Jones said.

"I told the guys, an old guy like me, what I wouldn't do to be in their shoes playing in relevant basketball games at this point in the season," Jones said. "We're playing the No. 1 team in the conference.

"That should be the definition of fun. This is the kind of thing you dream of and look forward to."

Western Kentucky won at Alabama and on neutral courts against Northern Iowa and Memphis this season but got mauled at No. 17 Houston on Thursday night. That loss almost certainly means the Hilltoppers, like everyone else in Conference USA, must win the C-USA tournament March 9-13 in Frisco, Texas, to claim that coveted NCAA tournament bid.

On paper, WKU is the league's best team. Veteran guards Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson are both seniors with more than 1,000 career points. Wing Luke Frampton has made 41 of 98 three-point shots (41.8 percent), but you can't focus on the wings with 6-foot-11 Charles Bassey roaming around the basket.

He was a high school All-American three years ago and appears to be a likely first-round NBA draft choice.

Western is the closest thing ODU has to an archrival in Conference USA and the rivalry seems to become more intense every season. Both games will be televised by the CBS Sports Network on Facebook.

With 1,239 fans allowed in WKU's E.A. Diddle Arena, the Hilltoppers will have a home-court advantage.

Joe Reece

Jones said his inside players can't hope to stop Bassey.

"What makes him so good is that he's a worker," he said. "A lot of times these really, really talented guys are outstanding players but they're not workhorses. But he really is.

"It's not about shutting him out or shutting him down, it's just making him work for everything he gets."

ODU won the Conference USA title in 2019 – the last conference championship game played – when the Monarchs upended WKU in the championship game.

ODU dipped to 13-19 last season, but Jones said the team was much closer to a better record.

"We were 20 turnovers away from a 19-13 record," he said.

Most of the guys who went through last season's struggle are back and returned more experienced and determined to vie for a championship.

As with the 2019 team, ODU is getting balanced scoring and guys are stepping up late in the season.

Malik Curry, the senior from Wilmington Delaware and the guy who makes ODU's offense hum, had 10 points in the first half on Saturday's 73-60 win over MTSU. But then he crashed hard into an MTSU player and did not return. He may or may not have a concussion, but he was held out just in case, and will remain out until ODU's medical crew determines he's fit to return.

As has been the case this season, when one guy goes down, another comes in and plays well.

Point guard Jaylin Hunter, a 5-10 sophomore from Manchester, Connecticut, came off the bench and played a nearly flawless second half. He made 7 of 10 shots, led ODU with a career high 17 points, dished off six assists and had four rebounds.

"When Malik was out, it was basically Jaylin's show," Jones said.

When Hunter went to the bench with his fourth foul, David Strother, a senior transfer from UNC Pembroke, came in and was immediately tested by MTSU.

"Middle Tennessee tried to pressure him to see if they could turn him over," Jones said. "But he made some nice assists and played good defense."

Power forward Kalu Ezikpe, who averages 10.8 points and 6.7 rebounds, got into early foul trouble and did not score. No matter. Kansas State transfer Austin Trice came off the bench to score 11 points, grab eight rebounds and block two shots.

Mekhi Long, the 6-7 transfer from Rhode Island, has stepped up his game in recent weeks and came off the bench to score four points, grab seven rebounds and block two shots.

Starter Joe Reece, ever steady and always a hard worker, had six points and five rebounds and had an assist, blocked shot and a steal.

Xavier Green played a solid game with nine points, three assists and two steals. Meanwhile, A.J. Oliver, who when he's hot is the team's best shooter, poured in 16 points.

That's eight very solid players in ODU's rotation, nine if you include Strother. As a result of that growing depth, ODU has won three in a row and 12 of its last 16 games.

"We've got more and more guys on the same page and playing better," Jones said.

"We're not there yet, but I do think we've been on a little bit of an upward trajectory. We're playing some good basketball. We could be better."

"We've got some momentum," Hunter added. "But we hope we're not peaking. We want to peak in March.

"If we keep improving like we've been, we'll be in good shape for the tournament."

Jones is hopeful that Curry will return soon, but added, "This is out of our hands. This is one of those things coaches have to stay out of. The medical professionals will let us know when he's ready."

With or without Malik, ODU will be a decided underdog in both games. A victory in one game likely would sew up a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Two victories would give ODU the East Division crown and the best possible seeding available for the C-USA tournament.

As I've noted before, ODU is the defending Conference USA champion. Last season's tournament was canceled before the quarterfinals began. The last title awarded was won by ODU in 2019.

To claim back to back titles would indeed be sweet.

But first come two very important games at Western Kentucky, which, given the stakes, could rate as the two biggest Conference USA games of the season.

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