Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
For the sixth consecutive season, JMU women’s basketball was selected as the preseason pick to win the CAA. After 11 nonconference games, the Dukes (8-3) look the part of a conference title contender, but can JMU sustain its success and capture its first NCAA Tournament berth since the 2015-16 season?
An 8-3 record after 11 games isn’t bad, but it’s not overly impressive either. Wins over St. John’s and Dayton are the team’s most notable, but losses to Hampton and Wake Forest may haunt the Dukes if they fail to earn the CAA’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. A 87-63 loss to Maryland isn’t an issue — the Terrapins are a legitimate Final Four threat.
JMU’s RPI sits at 105th nationally, which isn’t nearly good enough for at-large consideration. Northeastern, on the other hand, ranks 35th in the RPI. The Huskies are 10-1 despite being picked to finish fifth in the CAA this season.
While the RPI is a tad disappointing, JMU should be pleased with its season. The Dukes have their most nonconference wins since the 2015-16 season and could easily be 10-1 with the only loss coming to Maryland. Kamiah Smalls looks the part of the CAA Preseason Player of the Year and Lexie Barrier is steadily making her presence felt. Kayla Cooper-Williams gives the team a strong defensive presence in the post.
With Kelly Koshuta no longer with the program, scoring in the post is a bit of question mark, but the Dukes have used a strong backcourt to earn a solid, yet unspectacular 8-3 record.
As mentioned earlier, the Dukes were the preseason favorite to win the CAA.
With nonconference action complete, Northeastern looks like the most impressive team in the CAA on paper, but the Dukes should still be considered the conference favorite. The Dukes lead the CAA in scoring margin and field-goal percentage defense. Suffocating defense is JMU’s calling card, and Smalls and company do enough offensively to put games away.
Look for Drexel and Northeastern to be JMU’s two biggest threats in the conference, but even without Koshuta the Dukes are the CAA’s best team. The RPI might have Northeastern significantly above JMU, but the Dukes are experienced and know how to win tough road games, which is a huge advantage in conference play.
The Convocation Center is also a massive advantage for JMU, which is 5-0 at home this season and 72-10 at home since the start of the 2013-14 season. The Dukes are 16-2 in home CAA matchups under Sean O’Regan, and I’d expect the Dukes to go 7-2, 8-1 or 9-0 in home conference games this year. With players like Lexie Barrier, Jackie Benitez and Kamiah Smalls in the backcourt, I’m projecting the Dukes to go 16-2 in CAA play this season, although I won’t rule out a 17-1 or 18-0 finish. With a 16-2 CAA record, JMU would finish the regular season with a 24-5 mark, giving the team a legitimate chance to surpass O’Regan’s highest win total of 26 games, which the Dukes achieved in O’Regan’s first season.
The Bottom Line
The Dukes are who we thought they were. JMU plays great defense and leans on Kamiah Smalls on the offensive end. I’m not quite sure how this team would fare in an NCAA Tournament game — it would depend on seeding and the matchup — but the Dukes have the pieces to get to an NCAA Tournament game by way of the first CAA Championship under O’Regan.