Each time Old Dominion players lifted weights this summer, the T-shirts they wore reinforced the program's theme for the 2013-13 season.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 12: CAA
• Old Dominion's 'Mission Possible' is to make the best of challenging season
• CAA Capsule Preview: Drexel aims to avenge last year's snub, snap 16-year NCAA tournament drought
For more news on the CAA, visit Rivals.com
The shirts read "Mission Possible," a reminder that the Monarchs' goals of capturing the CAA crown and reaching the NCAA tournament are reachable this season despite a myriad of factors stacked against them.
They graduated their best two players from last year. They may start a true freshman at point guard. And they cannot participate in the CAA tournament next March because the league doesn't grant schools who are leaving that opportunity.
"We adopted the motto because it's a challenging mission," Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. "We've been in the NCAAs four times in the last eight years, and all four times we'd have gotten an at-large berth. Three times we won the tournament and we didn't need it. The other time we got that at-large. That gives the kids and maybe our followers a little confidence that if the right stuff happens, why not us."
If Old Dominion is going to reach that goal this season, it will have to exceed expectations. With all-conference wing Kent Bazemore and double-double threat Chris Cooper both gone, no double-digit scorers back and seven newcomers to integrate, the Monarchs will be projected to finish below CAA favorite Drexel and top contenders Delaware and George Mason.
A middle-of-the-pack finish certainly wouldn't satisfy Old Dominion's two seniors, forward Nick Wright and NC State transfer DeShawn Painter. Wright and Painter have prepared for the season with the urgency you'd expect from two seniors who can only finish their college careers with an NCAA tournament bid if the Monarchs perform well in non-league play and win the CAA regular season title.
In early-morning runs and afternoon weight lifting sessions, Wright and Painter and have tried to set an example for their young teammates. They also organized summer pick-up games, helped the freshmen learn the playbook and reinforced Taylor's message of optimism despite difficult circumstances.
"With only me and DeShawn being seniors, I feel like truthfully it only affects us," Wright said. "This is our last time actually playing college ball. The other guys will still have opportunities. But me and DeShawn were talking to each other, and we said we've got to push each other and everyone else so we can get to postseason play. They've got to have the same mindset as us."
Taylor appreciates the effort his players have given so far, yet he also hates that they're in this position.
When Old Dominion announced in May that it was leaving the CAA for Conference USA in order to pave the way for its football program to make the jump to Division I, Taylor felt as though the CAA had no reason to react spitefully. As a result, Taylor was disappointed the CAA chose to maintain its policy of prohibiting outgoing schools from participating in league tournaments in any sport, a strategy that protects the interest of the remaining institutions yet also needlessly punishes athletes who are mere pawns on the conference realignment chessboard.
"I was surprised," Taylor said. "The thing about the CAA is the only source of revenue they have is the CAA tournament and men's NCAA money. They don't make money off any other sport. So I thought with VCU already gone, they may include us in the tournament because we travel really well and we've won the tournament many times.
"The other thing is our people didn't play any games. We were very transparent, we handled ourselves and the reasons for our departure with a little more understanding. We built the [Constant Convocation] Center and packed that out, we started football and packed that out and we're good in a lot of different sports. It made sense. Conference USA was really wide-eyed when they came in and looked at our facilities, our program and our market. They liked us and it became an obvious thing for our future."
When Taylor met with his players to tell them of the CAA's decision, he didn't make any rah-rah speeches to try to fire them up for the challenge. Instead he matter-of-factly explained the situation and encouraged them to work hard and make the best of it, an attitude they've embraced.
"I've thought about it plenty of times," Wright said. "I understand why we can't play in the tournament. I'm pretty sure we're not the only team that is experiencing something like this. It's something that happens and you have to deal with it and make the best of it. That's what we plan on doing."
Although Old Dominion ranked 250th or worse nationally in 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage last season, the Monarchs still won 22 games and finished 13-5 in the CAA because of their stout defense and relentless rebounding. They'll try to improve their offense and maintain that defense-first identity even though the departure of Bazemore and Cooper deprives the team of its most dynamic perimeter scorer and its best interior rebounder and defender.
Frontcourt depth may be an issue, but Wright and Painter should both be impact players as starters. Painter played a limited role behind C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell for NC State, but the 6-foot-8 transfer's size, strength and effort should help him replace much of Cooper's defense and rebounding while perhaps providing a bit more low-post scoring as well.
None of Old Dominion's young wings will replace Bazemore's 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game single-handedly, but perhaps collectively junior Donte Hill, sophomore Dimitri Batten and freshman Aaron Bacote can make up for the loss. Promising freshman Keenan Palmore will likely get the first crack at replacing Marquel De Lancey at point guard, though Batten may have to assume that role if Palmore isn't ready quickly enough.
Taylor knows he lacks the proven talent Drexel or Delaware have, but he likes the potential of some of his young players. He also loves the mindset they've adopted under difficult circumstances.
"One of the things I told our team is people are going to look at you and say it's impossible for these guys to defend as well as they usually do, it's impossible for them to rebound as well as they usually do and it's impossible for them to be as competitive as they usually have been," Taylor said. "That's when I came up with the theme for the year. Everyone's going to say it's impossible, but we've got to have Mission Possible."