Old Dominion experiences historic struggles on and off court

NORFOLK — The other day, Blaine Taylor mentioned, several Old Dominion basketball players approached one of his assistant coaches to ask the meaning of "malady" — a word he used in a talk to the team. Blessedly, they weren't directed to a video of the season thus far.

The Monarchs passed the midpoint of what's become a dreadful season. They are 2-16 overall, the program's fewest wins at this stage in the modern era. They are winless (0-6) in the Colonial Athletic Association heading into Saturday's game at James Madison.

It's a jarring plunge for one of the CAA's marquee programs, one that's averaged 24 wins over the past eight years and has been a postseason fixture.

"The kids have good hearts, they've got good heads," Taylor said earlier this week. "They want to try to do the right things. It's just one of those times in the program's history that we're going to have to kind of endure."

Athletic director Wood Selig said, "It's not anything that any of us wanted. From time to time, even the best programs have one of these kinds of seasons. I guess it's our turn. We've had a lot of good years and good talent. With talent and experience, I don't have any doubt that we'll return to the level of success that we're accustomed to."

The reasons for the plummet are numerous and well documented: roster makeover, youth, inexperience, injuries, illness, players acclimating to new roles with varying degrees of comfort and effectiveness.

Player dismissal -- notably forward Jason Pimentel and guard Breon Key -- robbed the team of experience, if not stars, and made the Monarchs even more reliant on freshmen and newcomers.

Old Dominion also was prohibited from competing at the CAA tournament, as a lame-duck member before departing for Conference USA next season. The coaches' decision to ramp up the non-conference schedule, to potentially bolster the team's resume for postseason consideration, in retrospect backfired.

"The transition to the new league was ill-timed for our team," Taylor said. "What we did with the schedule was ill-timed for our team. What the league has done to us is ill-timed for our team. We've had to deal with that.

"I think if you watch a practice, you see a lot of spirit, a lot of energy, a lot of trying. In games, you see a lot of spirit and energy and trying. We just haven't had a lot of wins."

Six of ODU's losses have been by five points or fewer, and a handful of other games were one- or two-possession affairs well into the second half. The Monarchs have been run out only by Richmond, George Mason and VCU.

"The main thing is that we're not that far away," assistant coach Jim Corrigan said. "We keep losing, but we keep being right there and having a chance, where we could have easily won. There's a bunch of those games this year where we could have easily won. We just didn't. So we're not that far away. That's the thing that keeps you going. If you can get one, maybe that becomes two, three and four and you get a little something going at the end of the season."

A spate of recent deaths within the ODU basketball family compounded the anguish. Among them: the grandmother of DeShawn Painter, who transferred back to his hometown school for his senior year to be closer to the woman who helped raise him; the grandfathers of guard Dimitri Batten and team video coordinator Chris Kovensky; the uncle of former ODU standout and current director of basketball operations Drew Williamson.

Former Monarchs' star Frank Hassell's father passed away last week. Taylor spoke at the funeral Saturday afternoon, hours before ODU played Georgia State that night.

By Taylor's count, he's attended seven funerals in the past two months.

Taylor received another gut punch this week when he learned that his longtime friend and agent, fellow Montanan Ken Staninger, has pancreatic cancer. Taylor welled up talking about Staninger, who kept his condition quiet for five months before informing friends.

Uniquely difficult as the season has been, Taylor remains committed to coaching and teaching.

"I'm going to coach for another 10-15 years, there's no question about that. It's just that this year has been …," he started and then paused. "We've been pretty blessed. We've been injury free — occasional funeral, occasional injury. We've just had a perfect storm of problems."

Though he's never experienced a season like this, Taylor said that he has made a point not to draw upon his circle of coaching friends for support or guidance. His ability to compartmentalize has been tested, speaking at funerals and guiding players through their grief, while demanding from them at practices and games.

"I have actually kind of bunkered in," he said. "Not to sound like I'm trying to ask every guy in the world the answers because I know we're in the middle of struggling and the kids are working. There's decent stuff going on all around the program and all around the university and all around the community. We're just going through a phase and the transition in this program to the next step, and this phase has not been easy."