Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
When JMU “mutually parted ways” with men’s basketball head coach Matt Brady, the move symbolized a step forward. The Dukes, and athletic director Jeff Bourne, were fed up with mediocrity. Winning 21 games wasn’t good enough. Failing to make the NCAA Tournament wasn’t good enough. Failing to advance deep into the CAA Tournament wasn’t good enough.
JMU wanted to regain national relevance. A once-proud program had lost itself, and Brady helped the Dukes find a sliver relevance. But JMU was ready to take the next step.
Only, it hasn’t. The Dukes are 28-54 under third-year head coach Louis Rowe, and the program continues to flounder compared to its CAA peers. The College of Charleston and Northeastern contend annually for NCAA Tournament berths, and UNCW put together a few solid seasons under Kevin Keatts. JMU hasn’t done any of that. The Dukes have lost.
Once they’re done losing, they pick up the occasional victory. Wins over Radford and Charleston generate excitement, but as fans cling to hope, the Dukes usually get back to what they’ve done best the past two decades: lose. Under Rowe, JMU is 8-19 following victories. It’s a team that seems afraid to succeed. Every time the Dukes taste success, they quickly fall back into their bad habits of turning the ball over and becoming stagnant offensively.
Clearly, this isn’t what Bourne envisioned when he moved on from Brady. It’s worth asking if Rowe is the right man for the job. But first, we need context.
JMU used to be a rising mid-major program. The Dukes strung together 22 winning seasons in the first 25 seasons of the program’s existence. After consistent success, the Dukes have earned just nine winning seasons in the past 24 campaigns. It’s a program that made the NCAA Tournament and NIT 11 times in the first 25 seasons of its existence, but has seen just one NIT and NCAA Tournament berth in the last 24 years.
It’s critical to understand where the program stands. JMU is a rising university with great athletic programs, but the basketball program has been in disarray for over two decades. When Matt Brady was let go, the Union Bank & Trust Center was still a distant idea. JMU wasn’t a particularly attractive job.
The Dukes are a long way from the days when Lefty Driesell led the charge. They’ve been forced to grab less proven and inexperienced coaches like Matt Brady and now Louis Rowe. Brady came to JMU with previous head coaching experience, but Rowe only had stops as an assistant, which came with mixed success.
Although the program is far removed from being an NCAA Tournament threat in the 1970s and 1980s, previous success indicates that JMU can be a successful mid-major program. History shows that winning at JMU is possible, it just takes a combination of better recruits, the right coaching staff for the job and a better record at home.
Was Matt Brady taken for granted?
Yes. Brady isn’t Coach K, but he’s a good basketball mind that handed JMU as many 20-win seasons in eight years at the helm as Lou Campanelli did in his 13 years leading the Dukes. Campanelli’s winning percentage is significantly better, and Brady saw three losing seasons as the coach of the Dukes, but he was underappreciated by JMU fans.
Bourne wanted more than CAA Quarterfinal exits and determined he needed to move on. It’s certainly a questionable decision in hindsight. Why move on from a guy that led a team returning seven seniors to 21 wins in the previous season? If the Dukes kept Brady and compiled a winning record under his watch in 2016-17, it would’ve marked the first stretch of three consecutive winning seasons since the program reeled off seven straight winning seasons from 1988-89 through 1994-95 under Driesell.
Brady wasn’t Bill Self, and the Dukes weren’t making a deep NCAA Tournament run any time soon, but that doesn’t mean another year was a bad idea. Again, hindsight makes this move look worse, but there are serious questions as to whether Bourne jumped the gun in moving on from Matt Brady. Regardless, Brady helped JMU start heading in the right direction.
Louis Rowe era
Enter Louis Rowe. The former JMU standout wing came to Harrisonburg with a different energy than Brady. It was quickly evident that Rowe, a younger and more intense coach than Brady, related well to the players. From pausing his introductory press conference to tell a player to take the hood of his sweatshirt off his head to getting ejected in the first half of the team’s CAA Tournament opener in the 2016-17 season, Rowe showed a different demeanor than Brady. He’s passionate, loud and emotion paints his face when he discusses his players.
Unfortunately for Rowe, that emotion hasn’t translated to wins, although the incoming recruiting classes are promising. JMU is just 28-54 overall and an abysmal 17-35 in games decided by fewer than 10 points under Rowe. The Dukes aren’t getting throttled in every game, they just can’t win close games. It’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be improving dramatically either, as the Dukes have a losing record in games decided by 10 or fewer points in every season under Rowe.
Wins and losses only begin to explain the Rowe era. Rowe’s biggest strength as a head coach is recruiting. Michael Christmas is a tremendous three-star recruit heading to Harrisonburg next season, and recruit Julien Wooden gives JMU another remarkably athletic wing in its 2019 class. Add in three-point threat Quinn Richey, a two-star Georgia recruit, and JMU’s 2019 class will make a quick impact in Harrisonburg. The thought of Christmas, Richey and Wooden joining Matt Lewis, DeShon Parker, Darius Banks, Dwight Wilson, Greg Jones and Zach Jacobs should excite JMU fans. Unfortunately, JMU fans are in dire need of excitement.
Let’s not forget this year’s recruiting class. DeShon Parker is a standout guard, a pure point guard with an extremely high ceiling. In his freshman season, Parker’s recorded 48 assists to just 14 turnovers, good for one of the best assist-to-turnover marks in the country. Aside from Parker, though, who’s just averaging 4.2 points per game and 2.8 assists per game despite the great assist to turnover ratio, JMU’s freshman class underwhelms.
The three freshmen outside of Parker, have combined for four points and 28 minutes. One of those freshmen, Jonathan Hicklin, has already transferred. With the core of this team being made up of sophomores, it’s worth wondering how much the freshmen other than Parker will impact future teams. Rowe’s recruiting gets incredible hype, but this year’s class contains flaws.
Patience in college athletics is rare. In today’s society, people want immediate results. JMU fans have seen recent success in football, men’s soccer, women’s basketball, volleyball, softball and lacrosse. Why can’t men’s basketball, one of the school’s most prominent programs, win at a similar level? JMU fans, donors and staff members want victories, but sometimes patience is necessary. It’s hard to fathom JMU struggling in the 2019-20 season with the incoming recruiting class and returning pieces, regardless of its coach. Maybe all Rowe needs is time. He’s still learning in his first stint as a head coach of a program.
Imagine if JMU was 8-2 in games decided by 10 points or less this season instead of 4-6. The Dukes would be 12-5 with a legitimate shot at winning 20 games. This team isn’t far from making improvements, but the Dukes just can’t seem to get over the hump.
Excuses, excuses, excuses
JMU isn’t 8-2 in games decided by single digits. The Dukes are 4-6. JMU isn’t 12-5 overall. The Dukes are 8-9 and 6-9 against Division I opponents. The Rowe era has been defined by excuses as to why the Dukes aren’t winning.
“At least they’re not getting blown out. It’s only a matter of time before they figure things out.”
“The core of sophomores looks promising.”
“The CAA is wide open. They can always make a run in the CAA tournament.”
“With next year’s recruiting class, this team will take the next step.”
It’s easy to see the merit in these excuses, but they’re just that — excuses. JMU has a young roster, but let’s not forget about redshirt senior guard Stuckey Mosley, who happens to be the team’s leading scorer, or senior big man Develle Phillips, who serves as one of the team’s best interior defenders. Will JMU explain away losses next season due to the loss of Mosley’s scoring or the lack of a shot blocker with Phillips gone?
JMU is young. The core looks bright, but the Dukes are 6-9 against Division I teams. Of the 353 Division I programs, ESPN rates JMU’s strength of schedule as the 338th best nationally. The Dukes play one of the worst schedules in college basketball, and they’re just 8-9 overall. At some point the excuses have to stop, and JMU needs to start winning.
Walking on eggshells
Rowe is a great guy. By all accounts he cares about his players, treats the media rather respectfully and shows a genuine appreciation for JMU. He’s a former standout player for the Dukes, and he’s as charismatic as they come. It’s easy to root for Rowe, which makes the last two seasons infuriating for JMU fans. When someone like Everett Withers struggles, it’s easy to pile on and hope for a new coach, but with someone like Rowe, fans want to see him succeed more than anything.
Respect for Rowe has caused fans and media members to buy into all the excuses listed above. When’s the last time someone wrote or said something genuinely critical of Rowe? It’s rare, and when it does happen it’s almost always from a fan, who beats around the bush before saying they’re hopeful he turns things around. I’ve been guilty of this, too.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask if Rowe is doing an adequate job. According to The Breeze’s salary database, he’s earning just over $270,000 annually as of Sept. 5. That puts him among the highest paid employees at JMU, which means he’s subject to a certain level of scrutiny.
If the Dean of the College of Business oversaw the business school as its rankings plummeted, people would call for a change. If JMU stopped garnering national respect or saw graduation rates drop dramatically, people would debate whether Jonathan Alger deserves to be JMU’s president. If Jeff Bourne hired a football coach after Withers that failed and didn’t take JMU to the postseason or a women’s basketball coach that failed to win 15+ games following Kenny Brooks’ departure, people would question Bourne’s ability to be JMU’s AD.
You get the point. Louis Rowe being a nice guy doesn’t mean it’s unfair to question whether he is the right person to lead JMU men’s basketball moving forward.
Is Rowe the right guy?
It’s a hard question to answer, and I don’t know. He’s a strong recruiter, but the on-court product continues to underwhelm. With fan attendance dwindling, and a major new arena on the way, JMU needs to start winning. After a win over the College of Charleston, there’s a glimmer of hope after an 0-3 CAA start, but JMU needs more than flashes of excitement. JMU needs consistent winning.
If the Dukes don’t turn things around by the end of this season, Bourne faces a tough question: Can JMU afford to wait for Rowe’s recruiting to pay off with fan excitement declining and a new arena on the way?