Jeff Jones was just 18 hours removed from the end of basketball season and creeping along in Washington, D.C., rush-hour traffic, but his enthusiasm was evident.

Jones’ first season at Old Dominion ended with a loss the night before, across the country at Fresno State in the College Basketball Invitational. That a young Monarchs team with no significant seniors and zero post players was in a postseason event, regardless of the tournament’s merits or methods, speaks to the program’s rapid progress.

“From the beginning of the year,” Jones said, “I don’t know if people realize how much better this team is and how hard our players have worked to get where they did.”

The Monarchs finished 18-18 in a season that was a learning process in multiple areas: new coaching staff, new league, new rhythms and routines. ODU authored one of the nation’s notable turnarounds with essentially the same roster that experienced a 5-25 nosedive the year before.

Jones replaced previous coach Blaine Taylor and was tasked with not just providing stability, but also re-establishing the foundation of a program that averaged 24 wins and made three NCAA appearances in an eight-year span.

“I’m ecstatic about how the season progressed and how the team truly improved, each and every game throughout the year,” ODU athletic director Wood Selig said. “I think Jeff and his staff did one of the best coaching jobs in the country.”

Despite obvious roster limitations heading into the season, the Monarchs also absorbed two preseason blows. Donte Hill, a leader and their most experienced player, was denied a year of eligibility, dating back to his transfer from Clemson. The NCAA also denied transfer Trey Freeman a hardship waiver that would have allowed him to play immediately without sitting out a season.

After a 5-9 start, ODU regrouped, improved and finished sixth in its first season in the far-flung consortium known as Conference USA.

“This group of young men bought in,” Jones said. “This group of young men put their money where their mouth was, so to speak. They were hungry. They said, we just want to win. There was a collective effort and a collective mind-set. There’s no question that’s what took place with this team. It was never about one guy or even one or two guys. Everybody worked at it.”

ODU adapted with a guard- and wing-oriented lineup consisting largely of freshmen and sophomores. Sophomore Aaron Bacote emerged as a reliable scoring threat. Dimitri Batten and Keenan Palmore were steady contributors. Redshirt freshman Ambrose Mosley and true freshman Jordan Baker became more comfortable as the season progressed.

The Monarchs made do with a forward tandem of freakishly athletic 6-6 Richard Ross and 6-7 freshman Denzell Taylor and actually outrebounded opponents through a group emphasis.
Predictably, the Monarchs struggled against teams with experience and superior athletes, and they compensated with defense and effort and resourcefulness against peer opponents.

The Monarchs’ bounceback put them in play for the CBI, the pay-to-host tournament a couple of steps below the NCAA and NIT. ODU signed on to host first-round and quarterfinal games, with guarantees of $35,000 and $50,000, respectively, to the organizing committee, the Gazelle Group.

Selig said the final figures aren’t in, but that ODU cleared about half of the $85,000 price tag for those two games, with tickets and concessions. The athletic department absorbed roughly $42-43,000.

“A great investment for the program,” Selig called it. “The experience of playing three more games, with a young team where everyone is returning, was extremely valuable and a reward for the kind of season they had. The investment was well worth it.”

Selig caught a lot of grief when he hired Jones, a friend and colleague from their days at Virginia who had settled in to a fine and successful gig at American University. A portion of the fan base wanted a splashy hire or a younger coach, not a 21-year head-coaching veteran at a mid-major program from Selig’s personal contact list.

Selig resisted the urge to fire back at critics, but said, “I did take great pride and pleasure throughout the year as people came up to me and said, I wasn’t sure about this hire at first, but I’m of a mind that he’s a great hire and he’s exactly what we need to get the program back to where we want it.”

Indeed, a .500 record was a nice step, but isn’t the goal for a program with the Monarchs’ recent track record. Jones said that the team’s two priorities moving forward are adding size and depth, and limiting turnovers.

“Our margin of error was so slim,” Jones said. “We’ve got to somehow, some way improve our ability to put points on the board. We had to work so hard to score at times. If we got points in the paint, it was usually because Richard and Denzell were working really hard on the offensive boards, or we were able to create some driving lanes. We didn’t have the ability to just throw the ball inside and get points that way or get to the free-throw line consistently.”

According to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy, ODU was 249th in effective field-goal percentage — a combination of 2- and 3-point shooting — and 347th out of 351 teams in free-throw percentage (62.1).

ODU had nearly 100 more turnovers than assists (474-382), galling to Jones, a former point guard. The Monarchs were 301st in turnover percentage, turning it over on more than 20 percent of their possessions, according to Pomeroy.

“We have to, have to do a better job of taking care of the ball,” Jones said. “That not only hurts you offensively, but when you lose the ball, a lot of times you’re giving up fast-break points and easy baskets and stressing your defense.”

Jones thinks that a year’s experience will help the ballhandlers, along with the addition of Freeman, a 6-1 point guard who was an invaluable presence in practice all season. Recent commitment Javonte Douglas, a 6-7 forward, and transfer Nik Biberaj, a 6-7 forward who began his career at Christopher Newport, will add depth to the front-line rotation.

Individual skill development and film study also will be critical, Jones said, as the staff emphasizes risk versus reward and playing smart. He is encouraged that the Monarchs can play the way he wants consistently.

“We’ve got a chance to get there quickly,” he said, “with the guys we have coming back, the guys sitting out and the new pieces we’re adding. We’d like to think we’re not that far off. That said, it’s not going to be easy. Sometimes, the last step is the hardest one. There’s so much hard work and sometimes luck that goes into getting to that point. But I don’t doubt that everybody’s committed to get there.”

Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.