Blaine Taylor may lose a race to a sloth after knee surgery this week, but his Old Dominion team is well positioned heading into the final three weeks of the regular season.
The Monarchs (15-9, 10-2 CAA) are among a four-team logjam atop the conference with George Mason, VCU and Drexel. Saturday's game at Mason (5 p.m.) is the first of three Saturdays in the coming month in which ODU faces the other three leaders.
"We might have believed it, thought it was possible, but I think there'd be a lot of doubting Thomases that we would have been sitting here approaching February tied for first in the CAA, based on what was happening in November and, December," Taylor said after Thursday's 80-71 win over James Madison. "There was just so much not known. I don't think we had people necessarily doubting, but it's just, how good can these guys get?
"Well, I think we're on the path of improvement," Taylor continued. "And then to sit in first place with a chance going down the stretch, that's a pretty good feeling. But it's a fleeting feeling. You've got to make something of the opportunity. None of these games are make-or-break, but some of them can really help make your way if you can get the job done. It's a tall order going to Mason, but it's one of those things where if you can kind of upset the apple cart, it could make things interesting for us."
ODU lost the first meeting to the Patriots a month ago, 63-54, a game in which the Monarchs shot 29.5 percent from the field and somehow managed only two second-chance points from 22 offensive rebounds.
Mason seniors Ryan Pearson, Andre Cornelius and Mike Morrison were practically giddy afterward, since they had never won at the Constant Center. The Patriots hadn't won there since 2004.
"It's a tough place to play -- for first place, there's a lot at stake," ODU senior Kent Bazemore said. "But we've got to approach it like it's another game. I felt like the first time we played them, as well as VCU, we put a little bit too much emphasis on the game, got a little anxious. We're just going to approach it like we're playing anybody else. Go out there and run our offense, execute and hopefully come out on top."
Indeed, ODU has had some very good teams get drilled in Fairfax in recent years. The Monarchs have lost seven of the past eight games at Mason by an average of almost 16 points per game. Their NCAA tournament teams of the past two years lost there by 17 and 16 points, respectively, They haven't scored more than 55 points in their past four losses.
Even the game the Monarchs won, 66-56 in overtime in 2007, they trailed throughout and needed an Arnaud Dahi 3-pointer at the buzzer to force OT.
But the 'Narchs are markedly better than a month ago. Bazemore was still getting into game shape after offseason foot surgery. Donte Hill and Richard Ross were still new to the rotation and figuring out their roles. Taylor and the staff were tinkering with lineup combinations and playing time to take advantage of the extra depth.
"The last time we played them, we were still in developmental time," Taylor said. "They were ahead of us in regards to their cohesiveness and we turned it over and weren't quite as polished offensively as we needed to be in that game. So you have to play a good all-around game. You don't play on the road against teams in first place and think that you can come in there with less than a real strong effort."
ODU now goes eight-deep and its balance was evident Thursday against JMU, when six players scored in double figures and five made 3-pointers.
What hasn't changed is the Monarchs' rebounding ferocity. Chris Cooper's career- and Constant Center-record 22 rebounds versus JMU keyed a 47-28 edge on the boards. The Monarchs lead the CAA in rebound margin at plus-8 in conference play. They were plus-10 against Mason the first time, despite the loss.
"We've been fortunate in this 10-2 record to win some close ones, come from behind, win in overtime, learn some lessons while we were learning, instead of just learning lessons from losses," Taylor said. "All those road games we had in December, we had four in a row in December, that was hard. But our comment was we were going to turn every negative into a positive. And all those road games and all those tough experiences, we're now, what, 5-1 in the league on the road? Five-and-one in the league on the road, that's unheard of in these United States."
The Monarchs get three of their last six conference games at home, including VCU a week from Saturday and Drexel to close the regular season.
"This is a good time for us," Bazemore said. "It's typical Old Dominion basketball. Start climbing the charts this time of the year and knocking people off. Coach says you've got to steal the ones on the road and win the ones you're supposed to win and you'll be alright at the end of the season."
ODU well positioned for trip to George Mason Saturday
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