Upon arriving at Old Dominion in 2001, Blaine Taylor discovered a state with a college basketball landscape as diverse as its beach-to-mountains topography.
If ODU can be the best in Virginia, Taylor thought, "then we'll be pretty darn good."
About a third into this season, the Monarchs are, indeed, the state's best and pretty darn good.
ODU is 8-2 entering Thursday's home test against 6-6 Presbyterian, this against a stout schedule that CollegeRPI.com rates the nation's 17th-best. Most encouraging, the Monarchs are ninth in the website's Rating Percentage Index, which mirrors the rankings used by the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Not that anyone should be surprised.
This is Taylor's 10th season as ODU's coach, and his teams have won at least 24 games in five of the last six years.
Last season was arguably his best as the Monarchs went 27-9, won the CAA regular season and tournament, defeated Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAAs and gave Baylor fits in the second. With four starters returning from that squad, Taylor had no qualms again crafting a diabolical schedule.
"We've really been ambitious," he said. "That's what we do."
ODU lost a taut opener at home to Georgetown, No. 2 in the RPI, but a week later traveled to the Virgin Islands and captured the Paradise Jam with conquests of St. Peter's, Clemson and Xavier. After another signature victory, at home over Richmond, the Monarchs dropped their CAA opener at Delaware but have since won three straight, Dayton being the most notable victim.
Coaches hate losing, but they love teams that respond well to the inevitable setbacks.
"Our shortcomings fed into our longcomings," Taylor said.
Hey, you get to make up words when you're winning, and the Monarchs are winning in typical Taylor fashion. They rank third nationally in rebounding margin, defend fiercely in either man-to-man or zone and go eight or nine deep.
"They're all starting to make their presence felt," Taylor said of reserves such as Trian Iliadis and Chris Cooper. "But they've been around two or three years. They've been part of championships and postseason play. The strength of our team isn't just the older (starters). It's across the board."
Indeed, while Frank Hassell, Kent Bazemore, Ben Finney and Keyon Carter are the undeniable core, Cooper has contributed valuable board work, Iliadis much-needed perimeter shooting. The Monarchs made 31.7 percent of their 3-pointers last season, but thanks to Iliadis (19-of-43), they're up to 36 percent.
Presbyterian offers a curious challenge. The Blue Hose from Clinton, S.C., are obscure and the final game before a week-long Christmas break, but they've won back-to-back road games at Auburn and Wake Forest.
Plus, as Taylor, an incurable wise guy, said: "It's hard to play a whole religion by yourself."
It will be even harder Dec. 30 when ODU plays at Missouri, where Kecoughtan High graduate Ricardo Ratliffe leads the Tigers in rebounding. Ranked ninth by the Associated Press, Mizzou has won 54 consecutive non-conference home games and plays a frantic, baseline-to-baseline pace that wears out many opponents.
The teams met last November in a Texas tournament, and 24 turnovers doomed the Monarchs to a 66-61 defeat. But such tests steeled ODU for postseason and will again this year.
"The Missouri game kind of looms," Taylor said as he trolled for Christmas gifts Wednesday.
Go back to shopping, I told him.
"I'd rather talk to you," he said. "It's cheaper."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP