By Bennett Conlin
JMU men’s basketball tips off its 2018-19 season Tuesday night when the Dukes host Eastern Mennonite. While the opponent isn’t anything special, opening night may reveal more about the Dukes than many expect. Instead of writing a somewhat traditional preview, I’m going with a Q&A format where I ask myself questions. I like this idea because 1) It allows us to quickly hit on a handful of topics and 2) It boosts my ego to both ask and answer questions.
You mentioned opening night against Eastern Mennonite potentially revealing a lot, why on Earth would you think a game against EMU will reveal anything?
Wow, relax your tone, me.
Don’t read too much into JMU’s game against Eastern Mennonite, but understand that the Dukes’ schedule isn’t going to get all that much harder. Yes, playing Division I teams is undoubtedly harder than facing Division III teams, but the Dukes have one of the easiest schedules in the entire country. The nonconference schedule is absolutely horrendous. If the Dukes beat up teams like Eastern Mennonite, East Carolina, Bridgewater, Charlotte and the Citadel to open the season, there’s a chance JMU goes 11-2, 12-1 or even 13-0 during its nonconference slate.
The game against Eastern Mennonite will also reveal a bit about the team’s progression from last season, particularly in the low post. Develle Phillips and Dwight Wilson need to dominate the low block against inferior nonconference opponents like Eastern Mennonite. JMU’s backcourt of Matt Lewis and Stuckey Mosley is going to score and perform well, but the success of the frontcourt may very well determine just how good JMU can be. Building the confidence of Phillips and Wilson against teams like EMU and Bridgewater could help jump start their seasons.
For a team that’s won just 10 games each of the past two years, getting off to a 4-0 or 5-0 start could be huge. That all starts with putting together a dominant opening night performance.
Just how bad is the team’s schedule?
I think JMU could go 28-3 in the regular season and still need to win the CAA Tournament for an NCAA Tournament bid. It’s that bad. The CAA slate poses challenges, but let’s not get carried away and act like it’s an unbelievable conference. In all likelihood, it’s a one-bid league with the potential to sneak two teams into the Big Dance.
Getting back to JMU’s schedule, we’ll look at the BPI (Basketball Power Index) ranking of all the team’s Division I nonconfernce foes. For comparison, JMU starts the season at No. 191 in the BPI.
East Carolina – 299
Charlotte – 294
The Citadel – 216
Oakland – 241
Northern Illinois – 177
Oral Roberts – 316
Coppin State – 343
Old Dominion – 120
Radford – 156
George Mason – 149
Fordham – 199
AVERAGE BPI: 228
Summary: It’s bad.
How should JMU fare in the nonconference?
Other than maybe the three-game stretch of at Old Dominion, vs. Radford, at George Mason, there’s no part of JMU’s schedule that should even slightly alarm the Dukes. Even the three-game stretch mentioned isn’t all that hard, with ODU at No. 120 being the best team the Dukes face out of conference. Add in games against Eastern Mennonite and Bridgewater, and the Dukes should win at least eight of the 13 nonconference games. If the Dukes leave nonconference play at 6-7 or 7-6 it’s worth being concerned. If JMU gets to 9-4 or better, which is extremely doable, head coach Louis Rowe should feel confident in the team’s position heading into CAA action.
With a nonconference schedule this easy, a CAA title contender should win 10-13 games. It remains to be seen if the Dukes can take a leap forward this year and start beating inferior opponents on a consistent basis.
So how many games should JMU win overall for it to be considered a “successful” season?
Looking at the conference schedule, it’s clear the Dukes will be tested.
Here’s a look at the BPI of other CAA squads:
Northeastern – 73
Charleston – 125
Hofstra – 145
UNCW – 157
William & Mary – 178
Towson – 196
Elon – 217
Delaware – 267
Drexel – 298
Northeastern and the College of Charleston are both solid teams. JMU won’t have many free passes, but it also won’t have any games it shouldn’t be able to keep close. With this being said, I wouldn’t expect a 14-4 record or anything abysmal like a 4-14 mark. Assuming the Dukes are about a .500 midde-of-the-pack CAA squad, we’ll say they go roughly 9-9 in CAA play. With a 9-9 CAA record and an easy nonconference slate, I’d set the over/under of regular season wins at 17.5 in the team’s 31 games.
If JMU continues to struggle to execute down the stretch and flounders against a handful of easy nonconference opponents, the Dukes may very well limp to a record of 15-16 or worse. If the Dukes take care of winnable nonconference foes and pick up road CAA wins against inferior opponents, while beating better foes at home, a 20-win season is a possibility.
With its schedule, I think anything under .500 is a disappointment, while a record of 16-15 or better is a step in the right direction. For JMU fans to truly feel happy with the wins and losses this season, I think JMU needs to go 18-13 or better. To me, a “successful” season is 16 wins or more and an on-court product that leads the administration to believe that more success is on the way.
If the Dukes fall below .500 for the third time under Rowe, he’ll have to rely on his recruiting prowess to sell the fanbase and athletic department on his future as the head coach. Personally, I’d be stunned if Rowe doesn’t last at least another year after this season, given his track record as a recruiter. Regardless, it’s time for the team to start turning talent into wins.
Which under-the-radar player should fans keep an eye on?
Keep a close watch on Dwight Wilson. He’s not going to lead the team in scoring or provide all that many highlight plays with the other guys around him, but he’s a fascinating prospect in the low post. He’s 6’7″ and weighs 260 lbs. If he’s able to provide solid relief for Develle Phillips down low, the Dukes might have their most effective front court in years, especially with Greg Jones, Zach Jacobs and Cameron Smith all logging minutes as well.
Wilson, just a sophomore, is the type of massive low-post presence that can change games by clogging the paint, snagging rebounds and bullying opposing centers when the team desperately needs a basket. I think he’s an intriguing player who isn’t getting any press.
What’s your prediction for the season?
I love JMU’s roster, but I think the Dukes are a year away from being good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. There’s a realistic chance JMU starts the season 10-3 or even 11-2, which would get fans in Harrisonburg excited for conference play. I just don’t see the Dukes reaching their full potential this season, and I still have doubts about Rowe’s ability to make in-game coaching decisions. He’s a phenomenal recruiter, but this team’s talent level doesn’t far surpass other CAA teams like I think it might the next two or three seasons. The future is bright, but I wouldn’t expect any miracles this season.
JMU finishes 17-14 with an 8-10 CAA record and loses in the CAA Quarterfinals.