Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hey, ODU, long time, no see!

Norfolk State's Gabrielle Swinson
Of the 349 women's basketball teams in Division I, 348 of them have played at least one game in the 2016-17 season.

And then there's Old Dominion. A tournament cancellation blew a season-opening week-long hole in ODU's schedule. So while many teams were squeezing in up to three games the past seven days, the Lady Monarchs practiced.

It's a good thing Allen Iverson isn't on this squad.

The exaggerated preseason finally ends Friday when crosstown rival Norfolk State visits the Constant Center at 7 p.m. for a matchup we wouldn't mind seeing become an annual thing.

We know talented Lady Monarchs sophomore guard Gianna Smith is ready. Heck, she was ready several days ago.

 Don't get me wrong, I love basketball, but I'm tired of watching it. I'm ready to play man 😤
Of course, few things excite a coach as much as the words "extra time to prepare." So, characterizing the break as "an opportunity," Lady Monarchs coach Karen Barefoot used work against the men's practice players, intra-squad scrimmages and attention-to-detail drills to fine-tune ODU's game.

Besides, if any group can thrive despite a delayed opening night, it's these veteran Lady Monarchs, who return 10 letterwinners and the entire starting five that finished 2015-16 on a roll. Most coaches use the first few games to figure out what they have. With so much experience on hand, Barefoot already knows what she has.

"The buildup is there," Barefoot said. "We're really, really excited about Friday."

There's also some excitement building a few miles down the road at Norfolk State, especially after Tuesday's 40-point drubbing of Division II St. Augustine's. Now, any Division I team should roll over a rebuilding D-II squad like St. Aug's (3-24 last year). But frankly, we're not sure last season's star-crossed Spartans would have looked as dominant.

In fact, in a preseason exhibition game last year, the 2015-16 Spartans actually lost to Division II Virginia Union. Granted, that Union squad blossomed into a D-II power. But the game set an ominous tone for a season in which the Spartans didn't win a home game until March 3, the final day of the regular season.

 Fortunately for NSU fans, nothing about these present-day Spartans feels the way things did at this point last year, from the coach - Larry Vickers, who took over with 10 games left in 2015-16 and had the interim tag removed in March - to a roster augmented by impact transfers.

Transfer guards Gabrielle Swinson (Bryant and Stratton) and Jordan Strode (St. Joseph's) in particular arrived at NSU looking like fully-formed Division I-caliber performers. Both delivered double-figure point totals against the Lady Falcons, as did four other Spartans. Again, they weren't playing UConn. Still, NSU's talent upgrade was distinct.

Barefoot certainly noticed.

"They're deep," she said. "They can rebound. They're a pressing team and a transition team. They've really, really improved."

That said, Vickers fully understands what he and his Spartans will be up against Friday. ODU's sheer physicality stands in start contrast to the passive resistance St. Augustine's offered Tuesday. And it's one thing to rule the boards against the vertically challenged Lady Falcons; it's quite another to keep pace on the glass with forward Destinee Young and an ODU squad that led Conference-USA in rebounding.

Then there's ODU star Jennie Simms, a versatile, All-American-caliber performer capable of taking over a game at any point.

"I haven't seen my team play against a dominant guard before," Vickers said. "I'll be interested to see how we accept that challenge."

Oh, and Coach Vickers, we'd humbly like to add one more concern:

When it comes to this Old Dominion team, fatigue won't be an issue.

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