Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Expecting South Carolina's Nikki McCray-Penson to be named next ODU coach today

We expect Nikki McCray-Penson will be announced as Old Dominion's new basketball coach on Wednesday, according to multiple sources.

Stay tuned, but for now our take is this: Great hire.

A few weeks ago, a reader suggested ODU athletic director Wood Selig dial up Chris Dailey, Geno's right hand. That would be a no-go, of course; Dailey isn't leaving Storrs right now. But if you want an assistant coach to be your next head coach, why not have her hail from a program that just made history by winning its first national championship?

McCray-Penson played for Pat Summitt at Tennessee. She's coached alongside Dawn Staley at South Carolina since 2008. The Gamecocks, of course, beat Mississippi State to win their first national championship in 2017; they've had six 25-win seasons, finishing in the top four in each of the last six seasons. That's in the SEC, by the way, Everest, in comparison to the Blue Ridge of leagues, Conference USA.

McCray-Penson's main job has been recruiter; South Carolina boasted the nation's No. 2 class and top player in the country in 2014, A'Ja Wilson.

McCray-Penson shares the Western Kentucky tie with Selig, spending two seasons there before joining Staley in Columbia.

The Women's Basketball 2012 Hall of Fame inductee is a two-time Olympic gold medal winner who had an 11-year playing career that includes three years as a WNBA All-Star. In 1996-97, she was the now-defunct American Basketball League's MVP.

Then there's the Knoxville connection. McCray played for Summitt at Tennessee, where she was an All-American and SEC Player of the Year as a junior and senior. She graduated in 1995.

That's quite a resume to bring to Norfolk, where frankly, she inherits a declining program. ODU hasn't sniffed the NCAA tournament since a 2008 appearance. They're nothing special in a mediocre conference. Attendance is awful -- almost as bad as a home schedule that has given fans little reason to come. ODU hasn't had a significant victory in six years unless you count a WNIT first-rounder over Virginia and upsetting UTEP to reach the 2016 CUSA championship game. The Lady Monarchs, save for GG Goodhope prior to her transfer, have had nothing close to a point guard since the Wendy Larry days.

What a blow when Shae Kelley announced in 2014 she was leaving the program to play her final year at Minnesota because she wanted a bigger stage in hopes of improving her chances at the WNBA. Kudos to Jennie Simms, a Washington Mystics rookie, for reaching that level after three years at ODU yet what a shame that Simms did not have enough around her to ever reach an NCAA tournament.

Three players have announced transferred; among them 6-3 center Manaya Jones, now at Memphis, had the most potential and is the biggest loss.

On the plus side: ODU's graduation rates greatly improved under Karen Barefoot. The Constant Center is a jewel and a new practice facility with all the trimmings is ready. The Lady Monarchs will also have one year of Kelly Loftus, a 5-10 guard who was Hofstra's leading scorer and best 3-point shooter when she decided to leave. They have an educated fan base that yearns for accountability when the results aren't favorable.

We believe McCray-Penson can elevate this program -- how far remains the question. Duplicating anything that resembles the Ticha era or the Elite Eight from 15 years ago seems like a stretch in these Power 5 conference days. But across the state in Harrisonburg, James Madison looks an awful lot like the program that used to be ODU. There's no reason ODU needs to play second fiddle to the Dukes.

It all begins at the top. We await the official news on the coaching hire, and if's it's McCray-Penson as we think, ODU fans will need to stay patient. But with McCray-Penson as your driver, we like the look of the road ahead.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Barefoot's departure a win-win for her and Old Dominion

Nobody who ever met Karen Barefoot could deny how much she loved being the Old Dominion women's basketball coach. Maybe you think all that positivity, all that over-the-top enthusiasm was an act that disappeared once she went behind the curtain.

Nope, that's Karen, morning, noon, night, a woman who could find something good to say even after, well, a 30-point loss, and perhaps that's why her biggest strength might also be among the reasons Old Dominion never reached the national success under her that was taken for granted under Wendy Larry.

The Lady Monarchs have never been to the NCAA tournament under Barefoot. This year with a veteran team that included WNBA second-round draft pick Jennie Simms, they didn't earn a postseason bid. The best teams in the nation no longer visit Norfolk. The home-and-home Tennessee series is a memory.

ODU used to be the best team in the state or always in the top two. Now you'd have to list James Madison, Virginia, Virginia Tech, William and Mary and maybe even Radford ahead of them.

Barefoot won games at ODU, but the team's very educated fan base remembers when the Lady Monarchs were contenders, conference champions, Sweet 16 regulars. It's a Top 25 level that ODU hasn't been close to achieving since Barefoot took over the program.

But she graduated players; ODU's APR rate was pathetically low when she took over. She created an infectious mood around the program that appealed to her players. She was da bomb in the community, a motivational speaker who could incite a lazy teenager to take out the trash. Her passion was never in doubt. She was hard not to embrace -- literally, every time you saw her.

But coaching is a bottom line business. And that's why the born-and-raised Virginia native, who grew up a bridge-tunnel ride away from Old Dominion, is likely a better fit for a program four hours south of Norfolk.

On Wednesday, Barefoot was named head coach at UNC Wilmington, a team that went 42-112 over the last five seasons under Adell Harris. This is a program Barefoot can elevate as she did during her Elon years when she took the Phoenix from five wins in her first season to 20 victories three years later, achieving Elon's first postseason bid in the Division I era.

But Old Dominion was a different kind of cat. National championship banners hang in the rafters. Seventeen CAA championships was a dynasty. Even in Wendy's final year -- one when the Lady Monarchs did not reach the postseason -- they beat a pair of NCAA Tournament teams and were the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. An at-large bid to the NCAAs wasn't out of the question until a quarterfinal loss in the CAA tournament.

An at-large bid has never been a remote possibility under Barefoot. Her teams peaked in March, but never enough to bring home a conference title. Results from November until February eliminated them from the national discussion. If we had to choose a highlight, it was last year's run to the Conference USA championship game as a fifth seed.

That team didn't receive a WNIT bid, either.

We're six years in now. If ODU is ever going to have a taste of its glory days, they've got to be ready to win a few in November and December against some opponents of significance. As much as everybody likes Karen, that's not Barefoot basketball. Whether the roster was filled with freshmen or sophomores or whether it was a veteran-led team driven by Simms and Destinee Young, Barefoot couldn't get it done in a place where the standard was conference championships and beyond.

Barefoot will do great things in Wilmington. With her contract not renewed for this final year, she will not have to endure a lame duck season. The top three scorers are gone and three players have transferred. The slate is largely clean; there is no messy divorce this way. That wasn't the case when Larry departed, a residue that sticks with what's remaining of the ODU faithful.

This is a win-win for Barefoot and Old Dominion.