Old Dominion is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, and that eight year drought was not ended without some drama and emotion.
CUSA’s No. 1 seed needed an Ahmad Caver three with 3.3 seconds left to escape its opener against Louisiana Tech. Then the Monarchs needed another late save in the semifinals, getting a three-point play from Xavier Green with four seconds to inch past UAB. And while no late heroics were needed in the championship game against Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers stayed within striking distance until the final buzzer.
As the confetti dropped, the emotion spilled out of ODU coach Jeff Jones, who is battling something far more important than an opponent on a piece of wood.
“It’s been a great year, it’s been a long year. We’re just really, really happy to be going dancing.”@ODUMensHoops' Jeff Jones, battling prostate cancer, reflects on an emotional win to clinch a bid. #MarchMadnesspic.twitter.com/bbtLr2nF1F— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 17, 2019
That may be one of the images of March to this point, but the Monarchs seem capable of adding plenty more.
As has been the program’s calling card for last decade and a half — first under Blaine Taylor and then Jones — ODU has fielded a staunch defense. Even while losing rim protecting extraordinaire Trey Porter to the Nevada transfer machine, the Monarchs posted the 48th-most efficient defense in the country, while being especially stingy within the three-point arc. Overall, ODU has held opponents to just 38.9 percent shooting from the floor this season, and have cleaned up the defensive glass at the 37th-best rate in the country.
The tone is set, both offensively and defensively, by senior wing B.J. Stith and senior point guard Caver. Stith (16.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG) was the Monarchs first conference POY since 2005, and at one point scored in double figures in 13-straight league games this season. Caver, who rarely leaves the floor (37.5 MPG), is one of the country’s most reliable playmakers (5.6 APG, 33.6 assist rate) who rarely turns the ball over.
Those two — along with breakout sophomore guard and lockdown wing defender Green (9.7 PPG) — power an offense that takes advantage of second chances, and seeks to minimize possessions and grind past teams with its defense. Freshman forward Kalu Ezikpe and freshman wing Jason Wade have added a punch of athleticism to the Monarchs defensive attack. The team did take a hit when sophomore wing Marquis Godwin, who had flashed offensive breakout potential early, went down with a foot injury, and has not played since late December.
Nonetheless, the Monarchs (13-5) were able to be the most consistent team in an parity-filled CUSA. This followed a non-conference that, despite early losses to Northern Iowa and Saint Joe’s, included eye-popping wins against VCU and Syracuse. Sitting at 26-8 overall, the Monarchs will try to upset their way to their most wins in the Jones era, as a run to the NIT semifinals in 2015 pushed them to 27 wins.
The 14th-seeded Monarchs open against third-seeded Purdue on Thursday, and the plan for such an upset seems simple: keep the tempo slow, rely on the defense to slow down Carsen Edwards and the Boilermakers and bank on enough plays like this from the veteran leaders:
Ahmad Caver with a dagger as this championship game hits the final minute. pic.twitter.com/JG82joDgs8— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) March 17, 2019
Should that happen, one of March’s best stories will get even sweeter.