Graphic courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
I need to get something off my chest. I’ve held this rant in for weeks, but it’s time to let it out. Fans, media members and coaches need to stop making excuses for JMU men’s basketball.
Let’s start by looking at facts.
- JMU is 29-58 under Louis Rowe, including a 9-13 record this season
- The Dukes are 7-13 against Division I teams this season
- JMU started the season 4-0, before going 5-13 over its next 18 games
- JMU is dead last in the CAA halfway through the conference season
- If JMU won every regular-season CAA game the rest of this season, they’d match Matt Brady’s CAA record in his final season
- The Dukes are 15-30 against CAA teams in Louis Rowe’s three seasons
We can sit here all day and rattle off statistics that say JMU men’s basketball isn’t very good. Instead of beating a dead horse, let’s get to the heart of the issue: JMU fans and media members are enabling this level of performance.
This week’s games illustrate my point. On Thursday, JMU fell to Hofstra 85-68, but don’t tell fans and media members. According to many, there were plenty of positives from the Dukes getting demolished at home. Let’s take a deeper look at the excuses, and why they’re a cop out.
Excuses: Hofstra Edition
The excuse: The momentum changed when Hofstra hit a full-court heave to end the first half.
Why the excuse is ridiculous: JMU lost by 17. Last time I checked, full-court shots are worth three points. The Pride didn’t hit six full-court shots for 18 lucky points.
It’s fair to say the shot briefly took the wind out of JMU’s sails. It’s also fair to expect a good team to regroup in the locker room and get over that momentary shock and devastation.
Hofstra’s lead expanded from six points to nine points. When JMU took the floor in the second half, it was still a single-digit game on the Dukes’ home court. If the momentum truly did change drastically, isn’t it concerning that the team couldn’t regroup in the locker room?
I don’t buy this excuse. While Hofstra scored the first few baskets of the second half, JMU cut the lead to six points with 14 minutes left in the game, meaning the Dukes outscored the Pride by three over the first six minutes of the second half. So if they did lose the momentum, the Dukes quickly got it back.
JMU lost to Hofstra because Hofstra was, and is, the better team. The Pride shot over 50 percent from the floor and only committed seven turnovers. JMU turned the ball over 15 times and shot 43.1 percent from the floor, while also taking 14 fewer free throws.
These results made sense according to the season averages. Hofstra’s average scoring differential is +14. If you take away the full-court shot, Hofstra wins by 14.
Hofstra leads the CAA in field-goal percentage at 49.1 percent. The Pride shot just above their season average, but taking away the three at the end of the half drops the percentage to 50 percent, which is within one percentage point of the team’s season average. JMU’s average shooting percentage is 43.1 percent. The Dukes matched their exact field-goal percentage average against Hofstra.
Hofstra beat JMU by 17 because both teams played to their average, and Hofstra is a significantly better team than JMU. Let’s not pretend that a lucky shot changed the outcome of that game. It’s an irresponsible and poorly-researched take.
The excuse: Develle Phillips didn’t play
Why the excuse is ridiculous: It was a coach’s decision not to play Phillips. It’s not like Phillips is going to emerge from injury to find himself back in the lineup making big plays.
He did take the floor against Northeastern on Saturday. The senior played seven minutes and committed three fouls. He didn’t record a point. He didn’t take a shot. He didn’t even grab a rebound. But we’re going to act like JMU lost to Hofstra because Phillips didn’t come in to foul people?
Phillips is a fine player in the post, but let’s not make him something he’s not. Phillips has 30 made shots on the season, which pales in comparison to his 49 fouls and nearly trails his 25 turnovers. He shoots 34 percent from the free-throw line and averages 16 minutes per game in the 17 games he’s played.
With Phillips out of the lineup, the Dukes are 2-3. With Phillips in the lineup, JMU is 7-10, with two wins coming against Division III teams. It’s a small sample size, and Phillips helps add front-line depth, but JMU didn’t lose because Phillips sat out. He’s not an impact player.
Excuses: Northeastern Edition
On Saturday, Northeastern nearly cruised to their 78-68 win over JMU, but the Dukes made a fantastic final effort to try to tie the game. Stuckey Mosley hit a few late threes to keep it close, before missing a layup with 51 seconds left to cut the deficit to five. The Dukes appeared to have an easy offensive putback, before a “questionable” over-the-back call on Greg Jones gave Northeastern possession and ultimately sealed the deal.
The excuse: The “blown call” cost JMU a chance at winning the game.
Why this excuse is ridiculous: It was the correct call. While minor, Greg Jones pushed Vasa Pusica out of the way to help the Dukes secure the rebound. The play occurred directly in front of a referee.
For fun, let’s pretend the foul isn’t called and JMU cuts the deficit to five points with 51 seconds left.
JMU would’ve been in the game, but Northeastern was in the double-bonus and has two of the top-10 free-throw shooters in the CAA, including the CAA’s best free-throw shooter in Jordan Roland. Yes, the same Jordan Roland that torched the Dukes for 29 points on 9-14 shooting.
It was unlikely JMU would’ve completed the comeback without forcing turnovers and hitting a few difficult shots. It wasn’t completely out of the question, but JMU trailed by as many as 20 with 5:43 remaining in the second half.
The Dukes didn’t lose because of an official making a call that fans, coaches and media members unnecessarily whined about. The Dukes lost because they were outplayed at home by a better team.
Excuse: The Dukes are battling.
Here’s a quote from Louis Rowe after Saturday’s loss: “I want my guys to keep fighting,” Rowe said. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that things like that matter.”
Why this excuse is ridiculous: I agree with Rowe’s sentiment. Consistent energy and effort is critical to winning games. I just don’t understand the excuse after losses. Nearly every team fights. Trying hard rarely separates your team from opponents.
Be honest: Have you watched JMU men’s basketball games the last three years and thought, “Wow, this team consistently competes harder than its opponents?”
There are times when I have. There are other times when I haven’t. Regardless, you can’t explain away a 29-58 record over the past three years by saying the guys are fighting throughout games. JMU should pat itself on the back for continuing to fight when down 20. But why are the Dukes down 20 to CAA foes to begin with?
What’s the Solution?
Media members need to ask tougher questions, and fans should request real answers. It’s time we stop making excuses for poor performance and hold coaches and players accountable for mediocre play. This doesn’t mean getting mad at anyone or angrily tweeting at people, but rather asking about the plan moving forward.
- How is Rowe planning on improving the team’s turnover woes?
- What can JMU do to get better shots and raise its shooting percentage?
- How can the school encourage better attendance?
- How does the team prepare for road games to increase its chances of winning away from home?
- Has the team changed how it approaches road games since Rowe’s first two seasons, or do the Dukes take the same approach?
I’m not advocating for screaming and yelling, but I do think it’s time we start asking serious questions about the basketball program. What’s the plan to improve?
If JMU wants to become a relevant basketball program, it needs to raise expectations and stop excusing away mistakes.
Media members shouldn’t accept “I want my team to keep fighting” as an answer. Every team fights. Did Northeastern not fight to take a 20-point lead over JMU on Saturday? Did Hofstra not fight in its 17 point-win over the Dukes? What about Fordham’s 27-point throttling of JMU? Were the Rams not fighting? Every Division I basketball team fights at some level. The only difference is that many programs win more games after fighting.
The Dukes are 29-58 over the last three seasons, but don’t worry, JMU nation, the Dukes are fighting!
At this point, it’s fair to wonder if the Dukes are just fighting themselves.