Old Dominion will do anything and go anywhere to play some high calibre opponents.
Jeff Jones, coach of the defending Conference USA champions, knows that he’s not getting NCAA Tournament stalwarts to come play him at home early in the season under most circumstances.
So he’s adapted. Jones has taken his team to St. Thomas and the Bahamas in the last three years, and he will tread that familiar path back to the Caribbean this November for the Cayman Islands Classic.
“We’re excited,” said Jones, who has coached to a 140-67 record in his first six years at Old Dominion. “It’s a great field and obviously a beautiful location. We’re looking forward to it.”
Jones said that when his team played in last season’s Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, it was hard not to note the devastation suffered in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in 2017. Everywhere they looked, there was storm damage and a reminder of the chaos sown throughout the Caribbean.
Old Dominion lost two of its three games at last year’s Paradise Jam, but it rebounded from an early 2-3 record and finished 2018 with a 26-9 mark and a loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now, as they prepare for a trip to Cayman, Jones finds himself pondering the mix of practice and free time.
“We’ll arrange things so they have at least one day to be on the beach and enjoying the sights,” said Jones of the Cayman Classic. “I don’t want to coop them up in the gym the entire time. We’re mindful it’s a business trip. We don’t want to do anything that risks our chances of winning games.”
Jones, the former coach at University of Virginia and American University, has a history of winning.
He’s taken all three of his programmes to the postseason NCAA Tournament, and he’s rolled up an incredible 73-32 record in six seasons of conference play at Old Dominion. The team has gone 80-18 at home the last six seasons, further complicating the efforts to get good teams to come and visit.
“These type of events are a great opportunity for a program like us,” he said of playing in the Cayman Islands Classic. “Not only is it a nice trip, it gives us an opportunity to play some quality non-conference games. You want these opportunities. You have to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Jones said his players recently returned from graduation and a two-week break, and Old Dominion began summer practice on 18 May. One of the players, Alfis Pilavios, is away playing with the Greek national team, and another, engineering student Aaron Carver, will be studying with NASA this summer.
Old Dominion lost its starting backcourt from last season in B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver, and it will have a group of new guards coming in to compete for playing time. Xavier Green was named to the Conference USA All-Defensive team last year, and he will lead the team’s returning players on the wing.
Jones picked 7-footer Dajour Dickens, a junior from Hampton, Virginia, as a potential breakout player.
“It’s a blend of new and old,” said Jones of his developing roster. “We’re very excited about the core of players we have coming back. It’s a very talented group but it’s also very young. We anticipate some growing pains. We feel we’re going to be a good team. It’s just how quickly we can gel.”
Nothing will come easy in Conference USA, the nation’s largest conference by sheer geographic size. The conference stretches from Virginia all the way to Texas, and Jones noted that no conference rival is close enough for a bus trip. Every conference game is a flight and a fight for Old Dominion.
But that is one of the reasons Jones is thrilled to play in the Cayman Islands Classic. When he looks around and sees programmes like Loyola-Chicago, New Mexico State, Nebraska, he knows that every game will be a close call and an excellent way to warm his team up for the upcoming season.
Jones cannot help but be inspired by his alma mater, the University of Virginia, which won its first NCAA championship in April. Jones, a four-year starter at Virginia, played in the 1981 Final Four and was an assistant coach when the Cavaliers made their only other Final Four run in 1984.
He later took Virginia to the NCAA Tournament five times in eight seasons as head coach, and when he watched them making their run to the title, he could not help but look back wistfully.
“They just kept knocking on the door,” said Jones. “I’m especially happy for [Virginia assistant coach] Jason Williford, who played for me at Virginia and later was on my staff at American.”