CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If Marshall's 2014-15 team can pull off what Old Dominion is doing this season, the atmosphere around the program will be a little brighter.Under first-year coach Jeff Jones, the Monarchs have improved from a dismal 5-25 to their current 13-15, a Division I-leading eight-win improvement with at least four games to go. That upgrade is tied with Missouri State (from 11-22 to 19-10).Perhaps more impressive is the Monarchs' record in their first year in Conference USA. The former Colonial Athletic Association program is 7-6 in the league, tied for sixth place out of 16 teams.Tonight, the Thundering Herd takes on the Monarchs at the 8,472-seat Constant Center in Norfolk, Va. Tipoff time is 7 p.m.
Jones, the former Virginia point guard and head coach from 1990-98, came to ODU after winning a program-high 212 games at American from 2000-13. Now 366-302 in 22 seasons, he inherited a sudden mess at a proud program."I've known Jeff for a long time," said Marshall coach Tom Herrion. "We followed Jeff at UVA when I was with Coach [Pete] Gillen. He did a great job at American."Old Dominion has had as much success and tradition as anybody we've added. They made the change [in conferences] and Jeff will do a good job."Last season, Blaine Taylor was fired after a 2-20 start, with athletic director Wood Selig saying the decision was not about wins and losses but about "a number of factors by which a head coach is evaluated." ODU officials wouldn't elaborate, but widely circulated videos showed Taylor appearing to be inebriated at one of his shows.Taylor's downfall wasn't gradual — the Monarchs had won 22 or more games seven of the previous eight seasons.Even stranger, one of the Monarchs' wins came at Virginia. Then again, that shows the Monarchs did have some talent.That begins with 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Aaron Bacote, who is sixth in C-USA scoring at 16.2 points per game. The Monarchs often use a three-guard offense, but Herrion points to "freak athlete" Richard Ross, the 6-foot-6 junior who shoots 51.2 percent from the floor, scores 9.2 points per game and averages 7.3 rebounds.Herrion said Jones' teams play man-to-man defense 95 percent of the time, but the Herd (9-19, 3-10 Conference USA) may account for much of the remaining 5 percent. The league-games-only stats look no better for MU: 15th in C-USA at 27.2 percent on 3-point shots, 15th from any distance (40.6 percent). As a "bonus," the Herd is 13th in rebounding margin (minus-2.7).MU is playing some of its best defense in its last three games, as those opponents shot just 37.2 percent from the floor and 32.3 percent from 3-point range. Still, the Herd had just one win to show for it.The troubles are coming at the other end."Right now, we have a lot of wasted scoring opportunities," Herrion said. "We've got to finish, put the ball in the basket. Lately, it's really jumped up and bit us."
BRIEFLY: ODU averages an announced 6,127 per home game, second in the league behind Texas-El Paso (8,036). Marshall's 4,727 ranks fourth, also behind Charlotte (5,130).Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.