Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Can ODU make a CUSA run?

Sure, winning four games in four days is daunting and doubtful.

But it's also doable.

In fact, Southern Cal just did it in the Pac-12. And it's happened in Conference USA three times since 2003, including last year, when 13-16 Tulsa ripped off four straight wins to take the crown. Now, it didn't hurt that Tulsa hosted last year's tournament. And the teams that start out three games from the title - the top four teams received double-byes - have a significant advantage. Still, the idea that winning four straight games in tournament play is too taxing simply isn't supported by the facts. We've seen it before, multiple times. Heck, two years ago, Central Michigan came within a last-second shot of completing a five-game sweep and becoming Mid-American Conference champions.

Over the years, we've had many players tell us they'd rather play games than practice. Add in the excitement and adrenaline that come with postseason play and, well, let's just say we're skeptical of how high fatigue really is on the list of issues facing teams this time of year. When a lower seed loses, the main reason is probably the same in March as it was in November - because they weren't as good as the higher seed.

Now, whether Old Dominion can pull off a four-game postseason run in Conference USA remains to be seen. Shoot, getting two wins will be tough enough. But by winning their last five games, the Lady Monarchs have at least injected a smidge of realism into the thought of some kind of remarkable run. Prior to this stretch, ODU's longest winning streak of the season had been three games.

The biggest reason for the late-season surge - the Lady Monarchs have found their defensive chops. In ODU's last five games, the best an opponent has shot from the field was East Carolina's 36.5 percent. On 12 occasions this season the Lady Monarchs have held an opponent to 36.5 percent shooting or lesss. ODU is 11-1 in those games, with the loss coming at mighty Middle Tennessee State. This includes a 68-57 victory at Wednesday opponent UTSA when the Lady Monarchs limited the Roadrunners to a measly 29.6 percent shooting.

That game highlighted another ODU strength of late - getting contributions from the rest of the roster. Yes, Shae Kelley has been going off, with three games of at least 30 points in the last five. But in that Feb. 22 game at UTSA, Kelley struggled and managed just 12 points on 4 of 13 shooting. Earlier in the season, if Kelley had a night like that, the Lady Monarchs were toast. This time, point guard Galaisha Goodhope, freshman forward Destinee Young and Tiffany Minor, in particular, came through and ODU survived.

Forward Chelisa Painter has quietly developed into arguably the team's most effective player after Kelley. The team's hot streak coincided with the insertion of speedy/heady senior guard Becca Allison into the starting lineup. And freshman forward Odegua Oigbokie consistently produces quality minutes. A lot of folks have been getting it done lately.

But back to the defense. Simply put, when the Lady Monarchs have been difficult to score against, they've almost always been able to find enough offense to win. When they've struggled to defend, victories have been much harder to come by.

The most notable exception came on Jan. 15, when the Lady Monarchs traveled to Hattiesburg, Miss., and outgunned Southern Miss 92-82. The Golden Eagles scored virtually at will, particularly first-team all-conference guard Jamierra Faulkner, who nailed eight 3-pointers and finished with 36 points. But the Lady Monarchs torched Southern Miss by shooting 60.4 percent, which as we detailed in a previous post, matched its best shooting performance of the last 10 years.

Southern Miss would be ODU's quarterfinal opponent if the Lady Monarchs get past UTSA Wednesday. The Lady Monarchs essentially beat the Golden Eagles at their own game in that first meeting, as Southern Miss is the highest-scoring team in the conference. But absent another lights-out shooting performance, ODU is going to have to do a much better job of getting stops to prevail in the rematch.

But even if the Lady Monarchs pull this off, it would only be half the championship battle. They'd still need to win two more games, most likely against teams they lost to in the regular season. Frankly, the most likely scenario is for ODU to win Wednesday, then come up short Thursday against a Southern Miss team that enters this tournament on an 11-game winning streak.

Again, though, the fact that the Lady Monarchs closed with five straight wins of their own at least raises the possibility of some ODU March magic. And the idea that anything's possible, isn't that what makes this time of year so much fun?

Conference USA
Tuesday through Saturday, Moody Coliseum (first three rounds), Haskins Center (semifinals and final)
2013 champion: Tulsa
Seeding: 1. Middle Tennessee State; 2. Southern Miss; 3. UTEP; 4. Tulane; 5. East Carolina; 6. Charlotte; 7. Old Dominion; 8. UAB; 9. Florida Atlantic; 10. Tulsa; 11. North Texas; 12. Rice; 13 Florida International; 14. Louisiana Tech; 15. UTSA; 16. Marshall

Tuesday's results
UTSA 90, Tulsa 89
Louisiana Tech 77, North Texas 59
FIU 85, Rice 65
Marshall 80, Florida Atlantic 73

Today's games
UAB vs. Marshall
East Carolina vs. FIU
Charlotte vs. Louisiana Tech
Old Dominion vs.UTSA, 9:30 p.m.

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