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."

Taylor is aware that the record has prompted some chatter and unrest among a segment of ODU followers, track record aside.

"I think if you look at the spot we're in, you're going to obviously have some critics," said Taylor, who doesn't even keep a desktop computer in his office. "I think one of the things we've done is insulate ourselves from that. … I've encouraged the kids to stay kind of bunkered in and do what we can do about us and don't worry about what other people are saying."

Taylor said that he's been encouraged by his bosses, as well: Selig, president John Broderick, senior associate A.D. Ken Brown.

"I think they're sensitive to the fact that our roster's in transition and our program's in transition to a new league," he said. "If you want to be really sensitive with just wins and losses, I guess you could be, but I don't think that's necessarily the bottom line with everybody right now."

Selig said, "I think Blaine is an outstanding coach. He knows the game. He's a great teacher and a great judge of character, whether it's the coaches he surrounds himself with, or the quality of the student-athletes he recruits."

Selig pointed out that the Monarchs just completed the best academic semester they've ever had under Taylor.

"We're getting it done at a very high level in the classroom," Selig said. "I expect we'll be back to getting it done at a similarly high level on the court very soon."

Taylor has two years remaining on his contract. Selig said that he never negotiates contract extensions during the season. He said that he will discuss Taylor's contract status with him after the season, as he does with all coaches.

He described Taylor as an asset, both on the court and off.

"He's one of our best fund-raisers," Selig said. "He has a great rapport with so many members of the business community, alumni and friends in the community. His team is always engaged on campus and in the community. They're usually the first ones in outreach efforts, whether it's reading to kids in elementary schools or public service in the community."

The Monarchs are optimistic for the future, with six freshmen and an underclass-heavy roster, as well as three players committed for next season. But they don't intend to mail in a season with five weeks and a dozen games remaining, even without grand incentives.

"Right now, it's just, if we play a good game and we run to the locker room and high-five," Taylor said. "That's about where we're at right now."

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