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Minium: ODU Basketball Proved at Western Kentucky it has the Right Stuff to win the Conference USA tournament


By Harry Minium
Western Kentucky has been feted all season as the crème-de-la-creme of Conference USA basketball.
With victories over SEC regular-season champion Alabama and American Athletic Conference powerhouse Memphis, and recruiting that perennially rivals some Power 5 schools, the Hilltoppers are, on paper, the class of C-USA.
Friday night, during the CBS Sports Network on Facebook broadcast of the WKU-Old Dominion University game in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the announcers spent most of the first half trying to out-do each other in lauding the Hilltoppers.
They wondered about WKU's chances of gaining an NCAA tournament at-large bid, speculated about where standout center Richar Bassey would go in the NBA draft and waxed poetically about the Hilltoppers' recruiting. There was scant mention of ODU.
It wasn't until the second half, when ODU erased a 13-point deficit and beat the Hilltoppers, that they finally focused on the Monarchs. And by Saturday night, after WKU eked out a 3-point victory, they recognized that on the court, these teams are equals.
Whatever advantage WKU has in talent, the Monarchs matched with hustle, heart, poise and a creative game plan. And they did it on WKU's home court.
"Our guys really wanted to sweep both games," coach Jeff Jones said.
They didn't get the sweep, but showed they've got the talent and the depth to win this week's Conference USA tournament in Frisco, Texas.
The bottom line? If ODU can win at Western Kentucky, the Monarchs can beat anybody in Frisco.
The key, of course, is to put three great games together, and in ODU's case, to do so in less than 48 hours. Conference tournament play is always a difficult slog because the schedules are compressed.
The Monarchs begin play Thursday at 10 p.m. Eastern time, most likely against North Texas (13-9), which finished third in the West Division. Middle Tennessee (5-17) and Florida International (9-17) play on Tuesday and the winner of that game plays Wednesday against North Texas for the right to play ODU.
If ODU wins, the Monarchs would play in the semifinals at 3 p.m. Eastern time Friday. The championship game is 9 p.m. Saturday night.
Thursday's quarterfinal will be televised by Stadium and the semifinals and final on the CBS Sports Network.

For the complete C-USA bracket, click HERE.
ODU is in the same bracket with West Division champion Louisiana Tech (20-6), which won 12 of its last 14 games. If both teams advance, they will meet in the semifinals. That could prove to be ODU's most difficult hurdle in the tournament.
ODU and WKU could not meet again until the championship game.
ODU begins preparing for the tournament on Monday, but first the Monarchs must purge themselves of the hangover from Saturday's heartbreaking loss.
"They were discouraged. There were some tears," Jones said of his players.
"That's a good thing. When you care about something so much, that hurt, it's good to have that. That means you care.
"As we told them, they'll come to realize they can feel good about their effort. They can be proud of how they competed and get themselves ready to go to Frisco and win some games."
This season began with a huge blow – Jason Wade, ODU's captain and best player, was lost to an Achilles tendon injury. The team has been challenged, like so many others, by the pandemic, and if you're wondering why schools such as Kentucky and Duke have struggled this season more than most, the pandemic is the most likely explanation.
Many players have been affected by the loss of life among family members and the loss of normalcy. Teams have developed "bubbles" that require players to go to practice, go to class and otherwise avoid contact with the public.
As Jones has often said, "what we've asked our players to do simply isn't normal."
So many players lost focus. At many schools, some opted not to play. Entire teams dropped out before the season ended.
Through it all, ODU has been remarkably consistent. The players stuck to the rules and only once had to quarantine for positive tests among people in the program.
The Monarchs finished the regular season 15-7 overall, 11-5 in C-USA and second in the East Division.

That's a huge credit to Jones, who should receive consideration for C-USA Coach of the Year. Jones performed magnificently in holding this team together.
"All he does is win," Athletic Director Wood Selig said Saturday night.
He indeed does. Jones has been perhaps the most consistent coach in C-USA in the past eight years. He's never had a losing regular-season conference record. Saturday's loss dropped him to 93-46, a 67 percent winning percentage.
Jones is 168-93 overall at ODU and Friday's victory was the 525th of his career.
"Since the day we hired him, he turned us around immediately and has maintained ODU basketball as one of the elite Conference USA basketball programs and among the upper tier of Division I," Dr. Selig said.
"It's a challenge to sustain excellence these days and coach Jones has found a way to do that."
Conference USA is a fine league with some quality programs. But because the bottom half of the league is so weak, it's difficult to have the sterling computer rankings necessary to gain an NCAA at-large bid. And that's been a particular burr in ODU's side.
VCU goes to the NCAA tournament nearly every year and that's a credit their players, their coaches and their administration. But it's also a credit to the Atlantic 10, which is stronger from top to bottom than C-USA.
VCU has won one Atlantic 10 title since leaving the CAA in 2012, the same number of conference titles as ODU. Four of VCU's last five NCAA bids came from at-large bids.
Jones and the Monarchs won the 2019 Conference USA tournament and he led ODU to the Final Four of the 2015 NIT. ODU was twice among the last teams eliminated for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament and the Monarchs lost to Middle Tennessee by two points in the 2016 championship game.
Jones has been at his best putting his team together this season. The Monarchs closed out the season by winning six of their last eight games and seem to have gotten better each week.
The Monarch bench has proven to be a huge factor. Senior forward Austin Price, a transfer from Kansas State, has been a huge addition for ODU. He averages 9 points and 6.5 rebounds and has 25 blocked shots. His rim-rattling dunks have often given ODU a jolt of energy.

Point guard Jaylin Hunter has impressed with his ballhandling and shooting touch off the bench and Mekhi Long, a transfer from Rhode Island, started Saturday in place of the injured Joe Reece, and scored seven points and played outstanding defense.

"They've taken great advantage of the opportunities to play," Jones said of Hunter and Long. "They're gaining confidence. We would not have been in a position where we could have won (Saturday night) without Mekhi Long. That bodes well for us down the stretch and in the future. Having quality depth is a big plus."
Assuming Reece comes back from an ankle injury that knocked him out of Saturday's game, Jones enters the tournament with a solid playing rotation of eight players. 
ODU's defense in Friday's second half and all of Saturday was a thing of beauty. The Monarchs played physically. On Saturday, they forced 17 WKU turnovers, held Bassey to seven points and held WKU to 34.1 percent shooting.
The CBS Sports announcers were amazed at how ODU managed to put a lockdown on Bassey and also put so much pressure on the WKU perimeter.
That's the kind of defense that wins postseason games.
"We're playing some pretty good basketball now," Jones said. "We've sort of figured out who we are."
And who they are is a quality team with as good a chance as anyone of winning the C-USA tournament and going dancing.
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