Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Sizing up ODU in the Conference USA tourney
Once again, Old Dominion will have to do this the hard way.
After a disappointing performance in Saturday's regular season finale against UTSA cost them a first round bye, the sixth-seeded Lady Monarchs will begin what shapes up as a daunting road to a Conference USA Tournament title against No. 11 UTEP Wednesday at 10 p.m. at UAB's Bartow Arena.
This marks the fourth time in its four seasons in C-USA the Lady Monarchs have finished outside of the league's top four - those teams get to sit out the first round - and had to face a four-games-in-four-days championship gauntlet.
The Lady Monarchs do have some things going for them. They feature the best player in the league (and one of the best in the country) in Jennie Simms, and the conference's best rebounder in All-Conference USA forward Destinee Young. Those two front a roster loaded with conference tournament experience. And with Karen Barefoot as coach, there's never a shortage of optimism and want-to.
Also, for what it's worth, recent tournament history suggests the Lady Monarchs may be trending toward a championship breakthrough. In 2014, ODU's debut season in C-USA, 2014, the Lady Monarchs lost in the quarterfinals. The following year, they reached the semifinals where they nearly upended top-seeded Western Kentucky. And last year, they won their first three games, a run highlighted by a semifinal-round upset of No. 1 UTEP, before bowing to Middle Tennessee in the title game.
Indeed, in the last two seasons in particular Old Dominion has saved its best basketball for Birmingham.
Still, the sobering reality is that, to this point, Old Dominion has underachieved relative to its talent. You know that sports axiom, "you are what your record says you are?" Well, 16-13, 11-7 in conference and a 130 RPI are numbers that accurately depict the type of regular season the Lady Monarchs produced. And while the team has produced several solid performances this season, Old Dominion is 0-7 against teams in the RPI Top 100. To win this tournament, odds are the Lady Monarchs will have to beat two such teams.
Can the Lady Monarchs once again take it up another level in the postseason?
We'll see. But this much is clear - if the Lady Monarchs plan on returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, they're going to have to.
Other pertinent questions:
How damaging was Saturday's 81-68 home loss to UTSA?
Well, in addition to costing the team the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye, the loss moved ODU out of a bracket in which the potential matchups were relatively favorable (Charlotte/Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky) and resigned them to a path in which their projected matchups are distinctly unfavorable (Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee). It placed an extra game's demand on Simms, whose brilliant play has masked the fact that she's been dealing with a nagging ankle injury for weeks. And it set an ominous tone regarding ODU's ability to come up big when the stakes are high.
Other than that, not too damaging.
What happened in that UTSA game?
The Lady Monarchs appeared extremely keyed up to play Saturday - not surprising on a Senior Day - and their boundless enthusiasm may have actually worked against them early. They settled in, though, and actually took control of things early in the third quarter. The Roadrunners simply outplayed ODU the rest of the way.
Barefoot pointed to a parade of missed shots, and it's true the Lady Monarchs couldn't hit the floor with their hats in that fourth quarter. But the Roadrunners also shot 60.6 percent in the second half. From where we sat, the poor shooting was secondary; the larger concern was Old Dominion's inability to find solutions defensively as the game wore on. This, after all, is a team that prides itself on stopping people.
So, just how daunting is the road ahead?
The opener against UTEP actually provides an excellent opportunity to establish some tournament momentum. Last Thursday against these same Miners, a Lady Monarchs team bristling with confidence rolled to a 19-point victory. Old Dominion probably won't shoot 60 percent from the field again. But if they execute even reasonably close to the way they did against UTEP less than a week ago, the Miners figure to be hard-pressed to keep up.
But up next is No. 3 Southern Miss, whose tenacious full-court pressure style discombobulated Old Dominion when the teams met in Hattiesburg on Jan. 12. The Lady Monarchs actually shot 50 percent from the field and hit nine 3-pointers. But they also committed 29 turnovers which led to 33 Southern Miss points and an 84-69 defeat.
Two weeks earlier, against a Syracuse team that also features end-to-end pressure, ODU coughed it up 31 times in a 92-66 loss. So far, pressure has brought out the worst in this Old Dominion team.
Should they survive Southern Miss, odds are that No. 2 Middle Tennessee (RPI 81) would await in the semifinals. The Raiders have an elite point guard in Ty Petty and a low-post stud in Alex Johnson. Old Dominion had no answer for either in the teams' long regular season encounter; MTSU won by 17 at Old Dominion.
Produce another upset and all that would stand between ODU and the title, if form holds, is No. 1 Western Kentucky (RPI 40), the only conference team the Lady Monarchs have yet to defeat since joining the league four years ago (0-7).
So to sum it up, to become C-USA champions the Lady Monarchs will definitely have to overcome a team that plays a style that gives them fits and then likely have to knock off at least one and possibly two teams that have resumes significantly better than anyone they've beaten this season.
A daunting road, indeed.
Is there precedent for a team winning four games in four days to take the title?
In 2013, the year before Old Dominion joined Conference USA, No. 6 Tulsa won on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to claim the crown. Now, it probably helped that Tulsa faced the No. 8 seed in the final. And that Tulsa hosted the tournament. But yes, it has happened.
What happens if Old Dominion doesn't win this tournament?
We're certainly not WNIT bracketologists (is anyone?), but generally speaking, teams that finish with a .500 or better record and have RPIs inside the top 120 historically have been in excellent shape for WNIT bids should they not make the NCAAs. As noted earlier, ODU's RPI is currently 130, and beating UTEP (299) may actually make it worse. Our sense is that the Lady Monarchs need at least two victories this week to lobby for a WNIT bid with a straight face.
Of course, if they can get four victories, the Lady Monarchs will be picking confetti out of their hair and none of this will matter.
Old Dominion with Jennie Simms (2014-17)
Overall record - 54-43 (52-42 with Simms in the lineup)
Conference record - 32-22
Highest C-USA Tournament seed - No. 5 (twice)
Conference tournament titles - 0
NCAA Tournament appearances - 0
WNIT appearances - 1 (reached 2nd round in 2015)