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New territory for Monarchs to start on familiar turf
New territory for Monarchs to start on familiar turf

NORFOLK

The familiar and the unknown will overlap for Old Dominion on Saturday at East Carolina.

The game against the Pirates is the last of eight straight against current or former members of ODU's old conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, and the first of 16 in its new league, Conference USA.

The roughly 2½-hour trip is by far the shortest ODU will make in its new league. It serves as a transition of sorts from the nostalgia tour that featured a month of games against old regional rivals to the mystery trek that is C-USA.

With 16 teams from West Texas to South Florida, C-USA is a difficult league to wrap one's arms around. With four schools gone from last season and eight newly arrived this year, it's an amalgam of moving parts.

Where does ODU, 6-9 so far, fit in? Most likely somewhere in the crowded middle, coach Jeff Jones said.

"There's a whole bunch of us that I'd throw in that mix," he said.

C-USA lost much of its identity with the departure of Memphis, which used its domination of the league as a springboard for its national ambitions. A handful of teams were expected to vie to step into the void, and those schools separated themselves during non-conference play.

Southern Miss, which returned three starters from a 27-10 team, is 14-2 after a victory Thursday night at North Texas and owned a conference-best RPI of 32 going into the game. Louisiana Tech, which defeated Florida Atlantic, is 13-3 and recently knocked off Oklahoma. UAB (11-3) owns a win against North Carolina and Charlotte (9-4) beat Kansas State and Michigan.

UTEP (10-5) must overcome the loss of three players kicked off the team this week after being accused of betting on sporting events. But in what appears to be a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament, the Miners enjoy having the conference tournament in their hometown.

Between the top quintet and a pair of teams - Florida Atlantic and Texas-San Antonio - ranked among the nation's worst, are nine schools in the jumbled middle.

"I think we're in that group," Jones said. "We can step up, steal a game here and there and keep improving.

"It's exciting for me to think that - (though) we're 6-9, we're not that great - we've got a chance to be right in the thick of things."

ODU's six wins already represent a one-game improvement over a year ago. The Monarchs have squeezed a lot out of a roster short on size and numbers. ECU (11-4) is also undersized and undermanned.

By reputation, at least, C-USA is a faster-paced and more athletic league than the CAA. Among its coaches are several known for their teams' defensive prowess.

With so much familiarity among the teams, CAA play in recent years was often grinding. C-USA teams won't know one another's tendencies nearly as well.

Travel will also play a role. ODU will make three two-game swings that will take the Monarchs farther from home than they ever ventured during CAA play.

"We'll have a small margin for error, but that's who we are and that's who a lot of teams are," Jones said. "The teams that can deal with it and put their best foot forward on a regular basis are the ones that come February, will still be fighting for something."

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