When second-tier basketball teams have renewed hope, and Blaine Taylor dives heavily into horse racing references, it must be March and tournament time.
William and Mary, among others, can partially offset a disappointing regular season with a run in this weekend's Colonial Athletic Association tournament at the Richmond Coliseum.
"We're playing better basketball," Tribe coach Tony Shaver said. "I think our guys believe we can play well in the CAA tournament. We've had some good success there the last five years. I'm excited that they feel good about going back to the tournament."
The 10th-seeded Tribe (6-25, 4-14 CAA) faces No. 7 Northeastern (13-16, 9-9 CAA) at 6 p.m. Friday in a first-round game, with the winner drawing No. 2 VCU in a Saturday quarterfinal.
Meanwhile, Old Dominion (19-12, 13-5 CAA) finished fourth in the regular season and earned a first-round bye. The Monarchs will face the winner of Delaware-Towson in a Saturday quarterfinal at 2:30 p.m.
"I think the top six schools have a chance to win it," Taylor said. "I think the other six have a chance to win some games. I think you put us in the category of good old Seabiscuit. We don't quite look like we're the team to beat, but when it's all said and done, we can run a pretty good race."
The Monarchs aren't in the same class as their teams that won the past two CAA tournaments. But they improved steadily the past two months, as did All-CAA wing Kent Bazemore, with typically relentless rebounding and attention to detail on defense.
ODU took a hit at the end of the regular season with a knee injury that shelved senior guard Trian Iliadis, one of the team's most dependable and experienced players.
"We all have to take up the slack with Trian being gone," said redshirt freshman guard Dimitri Batten (Kecoughtan), who figures to absorb some of Iliadis' minutes. "My role isn't any different. It's whatever the coaches want to do with lineups and matchups."
While ODU adjusts, again, to personnel changes, the Tribe is as healthy and whole as it's been all season. Senior JohnMark Ludwick recently returned after being sidelined with a season-long foot injury, providing frontcourt depth, as well as perimeter shooting and another experienced body.
Ludwick, Quinn McDowell and Kendrix Brown are part of a core group that's had postseason success. Since 2008, the Tribe has won six CAA tournament games, the same number as George Mason, and advanced to two title games. Only VCU (8) and Old Dominion (7) have won more tournament games in that span. W&M won a total of three tournament games in the first 22 years of the CAA's existence.
"The fact that we now have confidence over there (represents) great growth in our program," Shaver said.
W&M's play in the final two weeks of the season provides confidence, as well. The Tribe won a pair of games, including a 79-54 dusting of Northeastern — a result that was as much a product of scheduling as execution. It was the Huskies' third consecutive road game after close losses at VCU and Georgia State.
"Each and every week of the season, I think Coach Shaver has gotten that team to improve," said Northeastern coach Bill Coen, whose team won the first meeting in Boston in mid-January. "Their execution has improved, their shooting has improved, they've gotten healthier. I think that game down there was really just a matter of them playing at a very high level and us really not."
W&M defeated Northeastern and Hofstra, played regular-season champ Drexel to the buzzer in Philly, and weathered Georgia State's defensive pressure to play the Panthers close.
"The precision with which they run their offense is outstanding," Coen said. "If you have a player out there that you're trying to hide a little bit, with some defensive weaknesses, or a guy that's a little bit young and not as experienced, they do a great job of exploiting that player. It just takes one guy to break down defensively, and they're going to get open shots and usually those open shots are threes."
Taylor and the Monarchs have excelled in tournament settings in recent years by tuning out the peripheral noise and speculation that accompanies postseason basketball.
"We're focused on 2:30 Saturday afternoon, 2:30 Saturday afternoon, 2:30 Saturday afternoon," Taylor said. "I think people that play these tournaments backwards, they don't ever get to the end of it."
The Monarchs have won three CAA tournament titles under Taylor and haven't been seeded lower than fourth since 2004.
"I've won a number of tournaments through the years, and I've won them from being the '1' seed and I've won them from being other seeds," Taylor said. "I think it's a little different being an 'other' seed. I think there's a little less expectation on the part of everybody. I think there's a little more fun being the darkhorse in the pack, and I think we should embrace that.
"Right now, the bull's eye is on Drexel and VCU and some of those guys. We don't have the bull's eye on us. We might be lucky No. 14, old Seabiscuit out there. I'll take that outside post position and see what happens."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun