RICHMOND, Va. – Being picked to win a conference and then actually doing it is tougher than people think. Repeating as champions in any context is exceedingly difficult as well. As such, one can imagine how tough it is to be picked to win, then win, two years in a row. On Monday night, that scenario was fulfilled as Old Dominion won the Colonial Athletic Association for the second year in a row with 70-65 win over arch-rival VCU. And there are a lot of things that led up to this result, a lot of things that led to this team being one that knows how to win.
In America, we love to root for underdogs and are sometimes disappointed when they don’t win. Old Dominion is decidedly not an underdog, at least not in the context of the CAA. They have been a powerhouse program for a long time, especially during Blaine Taylor’s tenure as head coach as they have won three of their six CAA titles under him. Taylor is the winningest coach in school history with 215 wins in 10 seasons, has led the team to postseason play in seven straight years and 24 or more wins in six of the last seven years. But winning never comes easy, and this program is a case study in why it’s remarkable to win as much as they have, especially these last two seasons.
The senior class has won 97 games, the most in school history. But the stage for a lot of it was set early in the careers of the current upperclassmen. If you think any postseason tournament other than the NCAA is meaningless to programs, Old Dominion debunks that.
In 2008, the Monarchs made the inaugural College Basketball Invitational, reaching the quarterfinals. That gave a young team two more games to grow. A year later, they were in the inaugural CollegeInsider.com Tournament, and came away champions. That gave them four more games against good teams and with a postseason feel, including a tough win at Bradley for the championship. It also gave Taylor a sense of what was to come.
“In my own world, I said, these guys aren’t done, there’s some more championships out there for this bunch,” said Taylor. “After that, we won the CAA last year, we won the Paradise Jam this year with a great field, and of course, here. My sense then, was there was a lot more left in the reservoir with this group.”
That tournament was also a coming-out party of sorts for Frank Hassell, who was Monday night’s hero. Hassell was the MVP of the CIT, posting three double-doubles along the way. This year, he was a first team All-CAA selection and followed that up by being the Most Outstanding Player in the CAA Tournament. Hassell’s efforts began with 24 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday night against Delaware, continued with 22 more points on Sunday and concluded with 22 points on 8-9 shooting and nine rebounds on Monday night. In all, he’s come a long way from when he first arrived on campus, ending up as a player that Taylor said would get serious Player of the Year consideration in some other years.
“If you were to look at him when he was a redshirt freshman, he was this rangy, long-armed, big shouldered, big-hipped kid, not in great shape, not great skills – he is the picture of sweat equity,” said Taylor. “He just absolutely went to work, and his value has gone up and up and up. A lot of it is the way he approaches things, a lot of it is coachability, and a lot of it is the fact that deep down inside, he believes he can do things.”
Hassell is one of a number of players who have redshirted at one time or another under Taylor. The Monarchs have liberally used the redshirt with their players, often in their true freshman year as was the case with Hassell and junior Kent Bazemore, among others. No less than six current Monarchs have redshirted in their careers, and the two true freshmen currently in the program are as well. Taylor has been able to sell players on the benefits of it, which isn’t easy to do in an age when many want to come to college and get immediate playing time. But that also speaks to the caliber of young man they have recruited.
It doesn’t hurt that Taylor has the program at a point where he can afford to redshirt players because the team has good depth on a consistent basis. Bazemore said that when he was being recruited, Taylor talked about that and what the depth chart would look like if he was added to it. He would have been behind several veterans, especially since he needed to mature physically and was only 17 as he entered college. He also needed to transition as far as his position went, because he was an undersized post player in high school.
How difficult was it?
“It was hard for the first three weeks,” said the junior wing, who filled the stat sheet on Monday with 14 points, six boards, six assists and three steals. “But I felt myself getting better.”
There are plenty of ways to run a program to success, even at the level Old Dominion plays at. Even so, the way Taylor has done it stands out. He’s built a program that is consistently competitive and has young men who buy into the team concept and want to win. The Monarchs have players like Keyon Carter, who comes off the bench but could start for a lot of teams in the CAA and had a key role in all three wins this weekend. They have players like Ben Finney, who doesn’t put up big numbers but simply wins games. They have players like point guard Darius James, who started as a sophomore and appeared to be on his way to being one of the best in the conference to coming off the bench some of his junior season, then had a good season and came up big during the conference tournament.
It’s easy to think that a team with the kind of talent and/or experience that leads to them being picked to win will simply win as if it takes nothing. Taylor has on several occasions talked about how that doesn’t get appreciated enough in a world where many will see a team picked near the bottom of a conference finish just past the middle of the pack and think it was a good year. Indeed, many simply adopt a mindset of, “they’re supposed to win”, which basically dismisses what such a team accomplishes.
“You don’t know what it’s like until you have to show up every night and they’re trying to out-rebound you,” said Taylor. “You show up every night and they’re trying to get one of their best wins of the year. It really measures a level of excellence and expectation where the effort, the psyche and the preparation and the competitive passion has to rise out of you. I think our kids are comfortable with that.”
Old Dominion’s players are comfortable with a lot of things. On Monday night, they showed that winning is right at the top of that list.