It can be riddled with mistakes, as young players make errors and learn on the job in a season that gets off to a rough start.
It can also be full of promise, as those young players start to get it and close the season by winning nine of their last 10 games.
Just ask Jonathan Adams, the old man of Old Dominion's basketball team.
"It's kind of frustrating at times, too, but that's the exciting thing, that we have so much that we can do to improve," said Adams, the Monarchs' only senior. "I don't think too many people thought we would be close to a 20-win season. I think that they thought we were going to struggle, and we did. But at the same time, it shows the character of our guys to be able to work and try to improve and want to get better."
ODU (20-9, 12-6) goes into the Colonial Athletic Association tournament as the fourth seed and the league's hottest team. The Monarchs open play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Richmond Coliseum against today's Hofstra-UNC Wilmington winner.
Three-time regular-season champion VCU (21-9, 14-4) is the top seed. Tenth seed William and Mary (10-19, 5-13) plays No. 7 James Madison (18-13, 9-9) at 6 p.m. today.
The Monarchs closed the regular season with a 57-54 overtime win at Northeastern, though Gerald Lee's foot injury left them with a starting lineup of four sophomores and one junior.
Lee and Marsharee Neely are the only other upperclassmen on a team where four sophomores — forwards Ben Finney, Keyon Carter and Frank Hassell, along with point guard Darius James — have started at least 13 of the Monarchs' 29 games. James has started all 29, and Finney has started 27.
"Would a more veteran team have peaked, for lack of a better word, earlier?" ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "Maybe so. I think our kids grew together through the experiences, grew to understand their roles better, grew to understand how to succeed better. But the main thing they did was they hung in there."
The Monarchs opened the season 1-4 before winning their next seven games. But then they dropped three of four conference games and were mired in the middle of the CAA pack after losing 58-42 to Northeastern at home on Jan. 24. A win four days later at James Madison sparked the season-ending hot streak. ODU's only loss since then came on Feb. 10 in a 60-51 setback at Hofstra.
"I'd (be) really trying to pull the wool over somebody's eyes to say we're not playing our best basketball," Taylor said.
"... We've played good basketball the last month or so plus, and yet this weekend, people are going to have to be right at the top of their game and probably have a little bit of luck to succeed."
Luck has been in short supply for William and Mary, last year's CAA tournament Cinderella. Five of the Tribe's conference losses have been by fewer than 10 points, including a 64-63 loss at ODU on Feb. 25 — not to mention a triple-overtime loss to Navy and a double-OT loss at Liberty.
The Tribe closed the regular season with a 48-47 win against Drexel.
"We're playing better basketball, and I think guys feel good about themselves as we head into tournament week," William and Mary coach Tony Shaver said.
While Shaver hasn't revisited his team's run to last year's final in great detail, he hopes that memory also increases his players' confidence.
"The question now is, can we repeat what we did last year and maybe take it a step further?" Shaver said.
Shaver and Taylor agree that another surprise run is possible in a balanced league. In the final week of the regular season, five games were decided by one point, and two others in overtime. For the first time since 2005-06, six teams won at least 10 conference games.
"The fact is, 11 of us are going to come home trying to figure out what else might be possible for us," Taylor said.
Adams doesn't want that to be him.
Unlike the rest of his young ODU teammates, this is his last chance.
"I need the ring," he said.
Today's first round
At Richmond Coliseum
No. 9 Delaware vs. No. 8 Georgia State, noon.
No. 12 UNC Wilmington vs. No. 5 Hofstra, 2:30.
No. 10 W&M vs. No. 7 JMU, 6.
No. 11 Towson vs. No. 6 Drexel, 8:30.
On Page 4
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