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Minium: ODU Men's Basketball Team Opens Tonight Against Va. Wesleyan With a Ton of Potential

2021 2022 MBB Program 1

By Harry Minium

NORFOLK, Va. – It was only an exhibition game against a pretty good Division II team. But when the Old Dominion basketball team rolled past Gannon, 96-56, on Saturday, I sensed a new vibe, something I haven't seen in an ODU team in a couple of years.

The Monarchs played with the kind of confidence and a sense of toughness that we didn't see a whole lot of the last couple of seasons.

But it was more than that. You could tell this team is close. There's a togetherness that I thought was at times lacking last season.

And that's not all that will be new, and promising, about the Monarchs when they open tonight at 7 against Virginia Wesleyan at Chartway Arena.

ODU's outside shooting has been a problem for years, but coach Jeff Jones recruited two very talented marksmen from the transfer portal.

C.J. Keyser, a transfer from North Carolina Central, was an All-MEAC Player who shot 46.5 percent last season. He's got a sweet jump shot, handles the ball well and plays with the confidence that comes from a fifth-year senior.

Charles Smith IV transferred from SMU, where he made 45 percent of his three-point shots, good for second in the American Athletic Conference.

Senior forward A.J. Oliver II has been hobbled much of the preseason with an injury and will play sparingly tonight, but he's also an excellent shooter.

No longer will teams sit back in a zone and dare the Monarchs to shoot.

The 96 points the Monarchs scored against Gannon was the most they have scored in a game or exhibition since 2017-2018. And while scores of that nature aren't going to happen very often, clearly, this team has the potential to be more up-tempo and score a ton more points than ODU has in recent years.

Point guard Jaylin Hunter, who came on strong last year in the second half of his sophomore season, likes to run.

ODU was 11th in scoring last season in Conference USA, averaging 68.3 points per game. They'll surely finish in the top half of the league this season.

As for the new vibe, Jones has sensed it as well.

"Yes, I've seen the same thing, and what I've observed is how much they enjoy one another," he said. "You know, a lot of teams talk about how close they are but this one is really close.

"They do so much stuff together. They are literally cheering for one another every situation and I think that could be a big plus for us

"Not any one season goes smoothly from start to finish. You're going to hit rough patches.

"When you really care for the guys to the left of you and the right of you and everybody's pulling in the same direction, that can be a big boost."

There are potential question marks. Hunter was impressive against Gannon and will need to be impressive as he shifts into the role filled last season by Malik Curry, who transferred to West Virginia.

The team's other point guards are Imo Essien and D'Angelo Stines and as freshmen, it will take them a while to develop. Essien played just 12 minutes against Gannon, but he looked promising.

ODU has a talented front line, but the depth is thin. The Monarchs will often play three guards.

Mekji Long, the 6-foot-7 transfer from Rhode Island, played well last season as he adjusted to his new team, and Jones said has had a great offseason.

"Mekji is the guy I point to in practice who's doing everything right," he said.

Kalu Ezikpe is a 6-8, 240-pound forward/center who must play well this season, and stay out of foul trouble, for the Monarchs to be successful. The Atlanta native has improved over last season, Jones said, and played well against Gannon.

Austin Trice is an explosive 6-7 forward/center who came off the bench against Gannon played a key role for ODU off the bench last season. He will back up Ezikpe.

"He's just so athletic that if he's focused and has that focus going in the right direction, he can make a big impact with his athleticism," Jones said.

One of the most intriguing guys on the roster is Brady O'Connell, a 6-7 forward from Georgia who redshirted last season. He played sparingly against Gannon, but his alley-oop dunk in the closing minutes was the most exciting play of the game.

Like I said, this team is going to run more, and score more.

Asked how much potential his team has, Jones answered "we'll see," with a Cheshire grin that tells you he thinks the team can be very good.

"A lot better than we are now."

By that, he was referring to injuries. In addition to Oliver, Essien, Smith and Trice have missed practice time with injuries.

 "As I look at these guys, we're just getting there in terms of getting healthy and getting everyone together," he said.

"That makes it interesting and exciting."