Jeff Jones knew he had a lot on his plate when he took over a reeling Old Dominion program fresh off a miserable 5-25 season.
So how does a coach complete a 180-degree turn by going 18-18 in his first year and then start 13-2 this season?
Well, maybe not the actual slices of cheese and pepperoni, but what they represented — trust. After all, the players he inherited didn’t know who he was as much as he didn’t know who they were, so establishing a relationship with the 18- to 22-year-olds he was hired to coach was priority No. 1. So Jones invited the players into the Old Dominion locker room with boxes of pizzas and the NBA playoffs on the TV.
“It was kind of like speed dating,” Jones said of his initial encounters with each of the players, “because we were having to forgo some of the preliminaries just because of the situation we were thrust into.”
Two years later, they’re more like a happily married couple that finishes each other’s sentences. The Monarchs are a contender in their second season in Conference USA, are No. 23 in RPI as of Thursday and received the program’s first AP ranking last week at No. 25 before falling out this week. Its 13-1 start — before a loss at Western Kentucky on Saturday — was the best in program history since the 1976-77 season.
But back in that first offseason before the 2013-14 campaign, things were still a bit rocky for Jones and Co. The team was in a state of transition after coach Blaine Taylor was fired in the middle of that rough 5-25 season after 12 years of success at the helm, including four trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Well-meaning folks approached Jones and told him once he got his own crop of players into the program, he could turn it around. He was taken aback. Why couldn’t he do so with the young men he was sharing slices of pizza with in the locker room?
— Jeff Jones
Jones decided to lay it all out in front of his new players, who were still a bit weary with all the changes and uncertainty swirling around the program.
“I want you guys to know that I came in here with my eyes wide open,” he said. “You are my players. I may not have recruited all of you, but you are my players. And I’m not looking towards next year or the year after, we’re committed to seeing what we can do right now. I’m stuck with you and you’re stuck with me, and we’re going to make this thing work.”
The players were sold. The truth of the matter was, as they told Jones, they just wanted to win, no matter what. And they did. The Monarchs completed the biggest turnaround in college basketball that season with a 13-win improvement from that forgettable season just a year ago.
They weren’t the most talented or most skilled, Jones said, but they stayed competitive and won games by simply outworking the opposition.
So when it came time for Jones’ own recruiting class — the same class that was supposed to symbolize the resurrection of the program — to step onto campus, they weren’t saviors. They were merely plugged in to what was already working, a testament to those players whom others had seemingly written off.
Fast-forward to this season and things are looking up for those in the 757 area. Old Dominion has big wins against rival No. 17 VCU on Nov. 29 and against Southeastern Conference foe LSU on Nov. 21.
For their efforts, ODU received national recognition in the form of a No. 25 stamped next to their school. Jones was in Cincinnati with his wife visiting his father in the hospital when he heard the news. Turns out, he reacted, as his wife and father described, “like a Grinch.”
“I get it,” Jones said about the ranking. “The people that have been supportive of and loyal to Old Dominion for so many years, it was a big thing. But for me, and I think for the team, our goals are much higher than that, and so I didn’t want — in any way — the team feeling distracted or content.”
Fortunately for Jones, his best player and leading scorer Trey Freeman won’t allow the team to do so. Freeman transferred to Old Dominion from Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, following the 2012-13 season to be closer to his sick mother and their family in Virginia Beach, Virginia. After redshirting last season, he leads ODU with 16.3 points per game — no other Monarch averages double-digits — and is the biggest difference between a .500 team and a NCAA Tournament contender.
But if you ask the junior, he’s just thankful to be home. Freeman grew up watching his older brother play at Old Dominion, so when Jones reached out to him offering him a chance to work his way onto the squad and be closer to his family — which Jones described as “very close”– Freeman was more than appreciative, even if Jones couldn’t guarantee him anything.
“He was willing to give me the opportunity to come back home, be close to home and play again,” Freeman said. “So I was just extremely thankful and grateful for that.”
If there’s one player that won’t allow noise from the outside to affect the team’s execution, it’s Freeman. In addition to being the leading scorer, he is the team’s best perimeter defender and has a work ethic that prompts Jones and the rest of the coaching staff to shoo him out of the gym after practices.
If you ask Freeman what Old Dominin basketball is all about, he’ll tell you the Monarchs “take on the character of our coach.”
“We’re striving for perfection,” Freeman said, “but we’re just trying to get better every day and every game’s a learning experience.”
Freeman doesn’t want to talk about the team’s ceiling. He leaves that for his coach. After all, if the team emulates its coach’s lead, Jones’ take is as good as gold.
“I know these kids desperately want to be able to represent Old Dominion in the NCAA Tournament,” Jones said. “Those are the kinds of things that I think are in the backs of everyone’s minds.”
Old Dominion is no stranger to the Big Dance. The Monarchs have 11 appearances in the tournament, including wins in 1986, 1995 and 2010.
Freeman knows appearance No. 12 requires more than a good 15-game stretch. Plenty of teams start off strong and fizzle out. That’s just sports. The key is keeping the foot on the gas pedal.
“Coach is gonna put us in positions to be successful and he’s gonna have us right,” Freeman said. “All we have to do is bring the energy, the effort and focus, and I’ve got faith in all the coaches so everything else will work out.”
Freeman and the rest of the Monarchs are putting their hopes and dreams in Jones’ hands. They trust him to take them to the promise land.
And it all started with some slices of pizza.