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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 23 Old Dominion Monarchs

Old Dominion has the best defense in Conference USA and maybe the best backcourt as well.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament-Western Kentucky vs Old Dominion Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 25-7 (15-3 CUSA)
Key Returning Players: Ahmad Caver (Sr. G), B.J. Stith (RS Sr., G), Xavier Green (RS So., G), Aaron Carver (RS Jr., F)
Key Losses: Trey Porter (F), Randy Haynes (G), Brandon Stith (F)
Key Newcomers: Joe Reece (Fr., F), Kalu Ezikpe (Fr., F), Jason Wade (Fr., G), Elbert Robinson III (Sr., C)

If Trey Porter hadn’t transferred, there’d be a good chance that Old Dominion enters this season as a top-15 team in our rankings. Nevertheless, the Monarchs are a top-three team in Conference USA and are capable of beating anybody with their defense alone. Not only did they rank 34th in the nation in defensive efficiency last year, per KenPom, they also ranked in the top 50 in almost every significant KenPom defensive category.

Every matchup conversation around Old Dominion this year will center around Ahmad Caver and B.J. Stith, who tied for the team lead in scoring average last year at 14.2 per game. Stith also shot 40 percent from three and pulled down 5.7 rebounds per game, while Caver ranked 18th in the country with 6.2 assists per game and was named the best defender in the conference in Athlon’s preseason magazine.

We’ll get an early idea of exactly how good the Monarchs are when they play at a much-improved Saint Joseph’s team on Nov. 9, then in the Paradise Jam the next week. An excellent non-conference schedule from Jeff Jones and a new strategic Conference USA schedule (see below) should combine to give Old Dominion a strong resume if it wins the conference tournament and wants a good seed in March. It’s possible.

Key Non-Conference games

Jones put together exactly the schedule one needs to compete in a conference with several NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. The Monarchs will be favorites against Oregon State in the first round of the Paradise Jam and could face Missouri in the second round. Just think about how back-to-back wins over Power 5 teams could elevate the program. Also on the docket: home games against traditional mid-major powers Northern Iowa and VCU, a trip to the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse, and a game at Richmond. If Old Dominion is going to compete for the CUSA title, it will also win a handful of those games.

Nov. 9 at Saint Joseph’s
Nov. 16-19 Paradise Jam
Nov. 23 vs. Northern Iowa
Nov. 28 vs. VCU
Dec. 15 at Syracuse
Dec. 19 at Richmond

Three things to watch:

The best defense in the state of Virginia

OK, not really. But Old Dominion’s defense is on par with some of the best in the country and that’s a big reason why the Monarchs are ranked in our poll. The allowed a conference-best (and seventh best in the country) 62.8 points per game last year and held their opponents under 60 points 12 times. Their masterpiece: An 82-33 home win over UTEP in which the Miners scored 0.52 points per possession and shot 2-19 from three. As mentioned above, Caver could be the best defender in the conference. The only question is who will replace Brandan Stith — a 6’7 post player who ranked fourth in the conference in block percentage. LSU transfer Elbert Robinson III will get the chance to prove he could do it.

New CUSA schedule format

If you missed it, CUSA is messing around with its schedule this year in hopes of earning more postseason bids and giving its teams higher seeds when they get there. For Old Dominion, a team certainly headed for SOME postseason tournament, this will make a difference. The Monarchs will play everybody in the conference once, plus their travel partner, Charlotte, a second time. Then, their final five games will be determined by their placement in the standings. So if Old Dominion has a strong season and is maybe in the running for a tournament bid (or, more likely, looking to get a better seed if it wins the CUSA Tournament), it will probably have another chance against Western Kentucky and Marshall.

What’s going on in the front court?

Robinson III is 7’1. Dajour Dickens (transfer from Providence) is 7’0 and seeking a hardship waiver to play this season. If granted, both could be solid rim protectors. It’ll take time for them to truly be able to replace Porter and Stith defensively. At minimum, however, it gives Old Dominion a presence inside that should discourage penetration. Look for the freshmen Joe Reece and Kalu Ezikpe to get their chances as well. Reece was ranked in the top 50 at his position per 247 Sports and Ezikpe is a top-20 product from Georgia. Need a wild card to watch? Try Aaron Carver. More on him below.

X Factor:

Aaron Carver. Old Dominion’s front court will be suspect regardless of Dickens’ status, but Carver is going to get a chance in an expanded role. He played 18 minutes a game last year but averaged 4.0 rebounds in that time. He also blocked 22 shots, giving him a block percentage of just under 5. With Stith and Porter having moved on, Carver now has his chance to show off.