Old Dominion established itself as a legitimate NCAA tournament contender with an early season upset of Georgetown. How the Monarchs responded immediately afterward impressed their coach as much as the surprising result.
"The thing that showed me a lot is that at the end of the game, we weren't jumping around in jubilation," Blaine Taylor said. "We just shook their hand. We expected to have a chance to win the game."
"I know that if we play our game," senior forward Gerald Lee said, "we can compete with any team in the country."
Although the Monarchs are seeded 11th and haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1995 – an upset of Villanova as a No. 14 seed – ODU fits the profile of a mid-major that could last longer than expected.
• The Monarchs already have proved they can beat a tournament-quality team. ODU's 61-57 road win over Georgetown arguably is the most impressive victory this season for any team seeded 11th or lower.
• They have been tested in the regular season. The upset of Georgetown headlined a solid non-conference schedule that also included meetings with NCAA tournament teams Missouri, Richmond and Northern Iowa plus NIT-bound Dayton and Mississippi State. Old Dominion also won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Colonial Athletic Association, a league that featured four 20-win teams.
• They rely on upperclassmen who have played together for a while. Old Dominion's starting lineup has three juniors, one senior and a third-year sophomore.
"There's no question that the No. 1 ingredient [for success] in the postseason is having older players and having postseason experience," Taylor said.
Though this marks Old Dominion's first NCAA appearance since 2007, the Monarchs have passed plenty of postseason tests. It just so happens that most of that experience wasn't in college basketball's showcase event.
The postseason no longer is restricted to the NCAA tournament or even the NIT. The College Basketball Invitational began two seasons ago for teams that failed to reach the NCAA or NIT. The CollegeInsider.com tournament launched last season. A spot in the CIT or CBI may seem like the equivalent of an invitation to a third-tier bowl games, but the Monarchs believe they profited from appearing in each of those tournaments. Old Dominion reached the CBI quarterfinals two years ago and won the CIT last season.
"A lot of the dialogue about expansion of the NCAA tournament is because of the fact you don't have the best  teams in there right now," Taylor said. "And the NIT doesn't have the best 32 teams because of the automatic berths. We played four 20-win teams [in the CIT]."
Lee and senior reserve guard Marsharee Neely are the only ODU players who remain from the Monarchs' last NCAA appearance in 2007, but they're counting on their CIT experience to help prepare them for this week.
"It helped us a lot," Lee said. "Even though those tournaments don't have as much respect as the NCAA or the NIT, it helped all our players get into the right mindset for postseason play. It gave us a little more experience in those situations."
Taylor knows how much experience matters. He remembers leading Old Dominion into a first-round game with Michigan State in 2005. Old Dominion was back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years, while Michigan State was making its eighth consecutive appearance. ODU went 6-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half to take a 42-37 halftime lead, but the Monarchs couldn't keep up the pace and fell 89-81 to a team that eventually reached the Final Four.
"They'd been to the postseason eight years in a row," Taylor said, "and that experience really made a difference."
That postseason experience already has come in handy for the Monarchs. Old Dominion trailed VCU by 12 points with 12 minutes remaining in the CAA semifinals. The Monarchs then remembered the lessons they'd learned in previous postseasons and rallied for a 73-69 overtime victory.
"We were just saying, 'The game's not over,' '' Lee said. "All of us believed we could win this game. Everybody had the right mindset."
|Although this marks Old Dominion’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, the Monarchs have been winning consistently for the past six seasons. Here’s a look at Old Dominion’s season-by-season record since 2005.|
|2004-05||28-6||NCAA first round|
|2006-07||24-9||NCAA first round|
Of course, all that experience doesn't matter without talent. ODU has plenty of both. It ranks fifth in the nation in scoring defense (57.1) and rebound margin (plus-8.8). This isn't the stereotypical mid-major team that must overcome a lack of size. Old Dominion has three players 6 feet 8 or taller averaging at least 22 minutes per game.
"We're basically playing a Big East team physically," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
The biggest of the Monarchs is Lee, a 6-10 senior who has earned first-team All-Colonial honors each of the past two seasons. He averages 14.6 points and shoots 54 percent from the field to reward Taylor's transcontinental recruiting efforts.
Lee was born and raised in Finland and is the son of Gerald Lee Sr., the leading scorer in the history of Finnish pro basketball. Before arriving at ODU, Lee had visited the United States only a handful of times to visit relatives. Lee has two uncles – Eugene and Russell Lee – who played for Marshall, and a third uncle – Ron Lee – is Oregon's career scoring leader.
Taylor was overseas recruiting French forward Kim Tillie, who just finished his senior season at Utah, when a coach recommended that he take a look at Lee. As the only ODU player with a scoring average in double figures, Lee now combines the fundamentals and perimeter skills he developed in Europe with the post moves he has learned in the States.
"The game overseas is a little bit more guard-oriented," Lee said. "A big man doesn't post up as much or play under the basket as much. They move around the perimeter. Playing overseas helped me fundamentally to play the game, but I've learned a lot more here under Coach Taylor. He's taught me a lot, and the rest of the coaches have, too."
Lee can't wait to again demonstrate on a national stage just how much he's learned.