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.

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