"That team in white is as rugged as the Pitt Panthers," said ESPN's Jimmy Dykes as the white-clad Old Dominion Monarchs surged to an 18-point first-half lead over Virginia Commonwealth University in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. ODU gave a little ground to the homestanding Rams in the second half, but managed to gut out a 70-65 victory to capture their second consecutive CAA title and reach the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
Coach Blaine Taylor's Monarchs head into the NCAA Tournament on a roll, having won nine straight after a 62-45 drubbing at George Mason on February 9. ODU's defensive toughness and rebounding acumen are never in question (the Monarchs lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage, snaring 45.2 percent of their misses), but Big Blue really got rolling by ratcheting up their offensive efficiency, averaging more than 1.17 point per possession over their current winning streak, up from 1.05. ODU's aggressive zone defense will give a lot of potential tourney opponents fits.
All-CAA (and honorable All-America) Frank Hassell is ODU's bell cow, grabbing 15.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. The 6'9", 255-pound senior was named the MVP of the CAA Tournament after averaging 22.7 points and 7.7 boards in ODU's wins over Delaware, Hofstra, and VCU. Kent Bazemore joined Hassell on the All-Tournament team.
ODU returns to the March Madness stage for the second consecutive season, with designs on a deep run. Last year's squad dumped Notre Dame, 51-50, in the opening round before falling to Baylor, 76-68. Seems strange to say this about a CAA team, but Taylor's tough-nosed, veteran bunch would likely see a second-round exit as a disappointment this year.
RECORD: 27-6 (14-4 CAA - tournament champion)
- 61-60 over Clemson, 67-58 over Xavier, November 21, 22, St. Thomas, VI: ODU got that championship feeling early this season, winning the Paradise Jam with a 15-6 closing run against Xavier. 6'5" senior Ben Finney was named tournament MVP after averaging 13.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, and 4.3 apg.
- 77-70 over Richmond, December 1, Norfolk, VA: 6'5" junior Kent Bazemore scored 22 and keyed a late 15-3 run as ODU knocked off a tough in-state rival and run its record against the Atlantic 10 to 2-0. Their 74-71 win over Dayton on December 11 gave the Monarchs a season sweep of the ostensibly tougher A-10.
- 69-65 over George Mason, January 8, Norfolk, VA: Four Monarchs scored in double figures to give Taylor his 200th career win at ODU. Hassell led ODU with 18 and 9.
- 70-65 over VCU, March 7, Richmond, VA: Hassell's 22 points and 9 rebounds paced the Monarchs to their second win over VCU on the season and clinched their return to the NCAA Tournament.
- 62-59 to Georgetown, November 12, Norfolk, VA: ODU nearly beat the Hoyas for the second consecutive season, but couldn't hold an 8-point lead with 6 minutes to play. Georgetown went on a late 13-2 run to spoil the home crowd's evening. Finney recorded a double-double, with 13 points and 10 caroms.
- 81-58 to Missouri, December 30, Columbia, MO: The Tigers shot 50 percent from the floor and forced 21 ODU turnovers to hand the Monarchs their worst loss of the season. Mizzou's pressing style presages potential bad news for ODU if they match up with an up-tempo defensive attack in the Big Dance.
- 62-45 to George Mason, February 5, Fairfax, VA: This 17-point drubbing at the hands of the red-hot Patriots represented a significant turning point for Taylor's team. ODU hasn't lost since, winning all but one of their remaining 9 games by 9 or more points.
PLAYER(S) TO WATCH: The aforementioned Hassell is a textbook widebody, capable of dominating a game in the paint and on the glass. Bazemore is a gifted athlete who occasionally falls in love with his talent, but can score from all over - while ODU is not a good three-point shooting team, the left-handed Bazemore makes 40.8 percent of his threes. Bazemore also averages more than 2 steals per game, often because Ben Finney tips the ball away from his man. Finney does a little bit over everything, scoring 9.2 points, grabbing 6.3 boards, and dishing out 3 assists per game.
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