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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 24 Old Dominion Monarchs

The Monarchs are primed to exceed expectations

NCAA Basketball: Southern Mississippi at Old Dominion Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

2019-2020 Record: 13-19 (9-9 Conference USA)

Key Returning Players: Malik Curry (G, Sr.), Xavier Green (G, Sr.), A.J. Oliver (G, Jr.), Jason Wade (G, Jr.), Kalu Ezikpe (F, Jr.), Joe Reece (F, Jr.)

Key Losses: Aaron Carver, Marquis Godwin

Key Newcomers: Austin Trice (F, Sr., Kansas State), David Strother (G, Sr., UNC Pembroke)

Nine.

That was the number of one-possession games that the Monarchs lost in 2019-20. It was also the amount of games they won in conference — their worst record so far in their short Conference USA history. The Monarchs did find their strengths, though, becoming one of the better defensive teams in the country. They’ll try to carry that over into this season.

Old Dominion returns all four of its double-digit scorers from a year ago, and six of its top seven performers. Along with that, Jeff Jones’ staff brings in three big transfers including D-II guard in David Strother.

The Monarchs think they’re getting consistently slept on by the media and Conference USA as a whole. Will they prove them wrong this year?

Key Non-Conference Games

While writing this, the Monarchs came out with their non-conference schedule. They will leave the state of Virginia once, and it’s for a big-name game, opening the season at Maryland on Thanksgiving Eve.

Last season, ODU didn’t win a single Tier A or B KenPom game. They’ll have a couple of those on their schedule before they even get into the thick of things.

Nov. 25 at Maryland
Dec. 12 at VCU
Dec. 13 George Mason (at VCU)

3 things to watch:

Malik Curry’s leadership

One of three Monarchs to start all 32 games a season ago, Malik Curry had an instant impact for Jeff Jones’ squad.

As a JUCO transfer from Palm Beach State, Curry was the Southern Conference Player of the Year and an NJCAA Second Team All-American. After coming out strong in the non-conference, he only got better in C-USA play. Before the conference season started, he averaged 9.4 points. In conference, he averaged 16.6 PPG, improving his scoring average for the season by four points.

He came on real strong in February, scoring 30 against UTSA and 29 against Florida Atlantic. He played over 40 minutes in both games and finished with exactly 1,000 for the season.

A good team player is also a great assist-man — he ranked 104th nationally in assist rate (28.8) per KenPom.

No one had the ball more than him on the team a year ago. He was 246th in the country in %Poss, with 26.1%, and 377th in fouls drawn/40, with 4.6.

If last year was a sign of anything, Curry will be an all-league player.

Experience and depth

For a team that lost so many close games, exposure and experience are big down the stretch. The Monarchs do believe they were lacking in that area at times last season.

Jones told Mid-Major Madness that Curry, Xavier Green, and AJ Oliver were playing too many minutes last season and that impacted the team. They just had nowhere to turn to.

Jason Wade missed a couple of games due to injuries, and it had a clear impact to ODU. When he played, he averaged double-digit points per game, and 5.5 rebounds. He also ranked second in the country in steal percentage and 314th in offensive rebounding percentage. That OR% was the second highest on the team.

When Wade went down, Joe Reece took the bulk of his minutes. He scored in double-digits in seven of the last eight games of the season, bringing up his scoring average by 2.1 points since his first start.

The Monarchs also gained two grad transfers in Strother (UNC Pembroke) and Austin Trice (Kansas State). Strother was a three-year starter at the D-II level and looked better every year. Last season, he shot 40 percent from three-point range, 81 percent from the free-throw line, averaged four rebounds per game and 12.5 points in 29 starts. Trice was the No. 5 JUCO player in the country before he transferred to Kansas State. He started in a Big 12 Tournament game, scoring in 10, and had a season-high 12 against Oklahoma State.

Defensive stronghold

Jeff Jones’ defenses are always a site to behold. Last season, his team was the 92nd-best defensive efficiency team in the country and the third-best in the league.

This is where the Monarchs might miss Aaron Carver, their most significant loss from last year. One of the leaders of that 2018 NCAA Tournament team, Carver started all 32 games a season ago, ranking fifth in the country in DR%. Kalu Ezikpe will have to step up in Carver’s absence.

As a team, Old Dominion was a menace from inside the arc. It was ranked 52nd in the country in opponent two-point percentage and seventh in opponents’ OR%. The Monarchs only gave up more than 70 points in just one of the 13 games they won last season.

X-Factor

Kalu Ezikpe

Jones thinks his team’s x-factor is one that some might not expect.

“A huge key for us, maybe the key for us is Kalu Ezikpe,” he said. “People in the league and around the area might be scratching their heads when I say that, in his first two years he was always scratching the surface. He can go a long way if he takes that next step, and become an all-league kind of player, not talent, player.”

The stats show his potential. In C-USA play a season ago, Ezikpe had the top OR% in the league. That 13.7% would have been ranked 32nd in the country if he played that well the whole season.

He also was third in the league in FD/40 and fourth in DR%. Not many, if any players in the country rank in the top five of their leagues in both offensive and defensive rating.

He averaged a total of 16.3 minutes per game, and still scored in double-digits nine times. He had two double-doubles, including one against UTEP, where he went 5-5 from the charity stripe and had 10 rebounds.

Ezikpe could easily be a breakout star in C-USA during the 2020-21 season.