WASHINGTON ——As Colonial Athletic Conference commissioner Tom Yeager walked through a downcast Old Dominion locker room, shaking hands and commending Monarch players on their 27-win season, ODU junior guard Kent Bazemore had a message for him.
"We'll be back," Bazemore said. "We'll be back."
Bazemore, who will return for his senior season as the Monarchs' leader in scoring, steals, assists and minutes played, will indeed get another crack at the NCAA tournament. But four of the teammates standing beside him in the Verizon Center locker room won't.
The Monarchs (27-7), who lost a 60-58 heartbreaker to Butler (24-9) in the first round of the Southeast regional on Matt Howard's last-second layup, graduate a senior class whose four members won 97 games.
Redshirt senior forwards Frank Hassell and Keyon Carter, along with senior guards Ben Finney and Darius James, also accounted for 38.6 of the 65.6 points the Monarchs averaged this season, but that's just one way to measure their impact.
On Wednesday, ODU coach Blaine Taylor reminisced about the "two fresh-faced redshirts at the end of the bench, cheering like two little sixth-graders" — Hassell and Carter — during the Monarchs' 57-46 loss to Butler in the 2007 NCAA tournament. On Thursday, Taylor tried to imagine a team without a senior class he has heralded as much for its character as for its win total.
"It's going to be odd," said Taylor, who holds a team meeting each spring before basketball season begins. Before those gatherings adjourn, the seniors leave, and Taylor surveys what remains.
"You always look around and go, 'Whoa, look what just left the room,' and then you challenge the other guys to pick the slack," Taylor said. "There was a time when those (seniors) were the ones still sitting in the room."
This season's seniors won 27 games for the second consecutive season as well as ODU's second straight CAA tournament title, but those accomplishments weren't foremost in anyone's mind minutes after Howard's shot.
"It's obviously disappointing to end one game earlier than we did last year," Carter said. "Once I get to reflect on my career, I'll feel better about it. It doesn't hurt that we've got a second consecutive championship ring to design."
As soon as it became clear that Howard's basket — off a scramble for a loose ball on the game's final possession — was scored before time expired, Bazemore's thoughts immediately turned to his teammates.
Imagining a season without four of them made the loss all the more painful for Bazemore, whose two free throws tied the game at 58 with 31.2 seconds left. (A Sprite bottle thrown by an angry fan that landed at his feet and sprayed its contents in his face didn't help).
"It's going to definitely be tough," Bazemore said. "We're going to have a workmanlike attitude. We know the chips are going to be down and people aren't going to look at us like they did this year. But that's one thing we took from last year, is to get tougher."
Last season ended with a loss to Baylor in the second round of the NCAA tournament after ODU beat Notre Dame 51-50 for its first NCAA win since 1995. Denied Big Dance wins in consecutive seasons for the first time ever, the Monarchs were left to look to the future.
ODU will also return 3-point specialist Trian Iliadis, who averaged six points while shooting 34.7 percent from long range and 83 percent from the free-throw line, and forward Chris Cooper, who averaged five points and 5.5 rebounds as Hassell's understudy. Backup point guard Marquel De Lancey will be back, as will reserve forward Nick Wright.
Taylor's name, often bandied about in coaching searches at bigger schools, has already been linked to openings at Georgia Tech, Utah and N.C. State, among others. But Taylor, while minus the tears that flowed freely after last season's loss to Baylor, was thinking only about his ODU players on Thursday.
"This game will give your heart an extra beat many times, and it will break your heart," Taylor said. "Right now, we're kind of heartbroken."