Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Thursday night brings us JMU vs. Virginia Tech and Sean O’Regan vs. Kenny Brooks. For JMU women’s basketball fans, Thursday has been a dream three years in the making. When a coach leaves JMU for greener pastures, fans salivate at the chance for the Dukes to beat the former coach at their new school. Softball fans would love the Dukes to get a crack at Auburn and former head coach Mickey Dean, while die-hard football fans find themselves wondering what a JMU-East Carolina meeting would look like with Mike Houston leading the Pirates. Now, finally, a JMU program gets a crack at its former head coach.
Make no mistake, JMU fans revere Kenny Brooks. Thursday’s matchup isn’t a case of wanting revenge on a man who gave JMU decades of combined excellence as a player and a coach. No, Thursday is about competitive fun. Thursday feels more like competing against a sibling than trying to get back at an ex. There’s something extra there, but it’s not malicious.
Brooks mentored Sean O’Regan and positioned him to become JMU’s head coach once Brooks moved to Virginia Tech. Without Kenny Brooks, we might not have Sean O’Regan — at least not in the same capacity. Regardless, Thursday is going to be intense.
Fans want nothing more than to welcome Brooks back to Harrisonburg with a standing ovation and an eventual loss. It’s not like Brooks left for Boston College. Brooks went to Virginia Tech, a school that likely doesn’t consider JMU much of a rival, but the Dukes relish every chance to beat the “bigger and better” in-state foe. This isn’t an ordinary third round WNIT bout.
With that being said, it’s still a basketball game. The team that defends, rebounds and scores most effectively will advance to the WNIT quarterfinals. JMU fans, players and coaches all want a win. The result will come down to a few key factors.
Shooting the 3
Virginia Tech leads the ACC in three-point field goal percentage, and JMU’s Jackie Benitez is coming off a game in which she nailed seven shots from beyond the arc. The Hokies shoot 38.1 percent from three-point land, while the Dukes shoot 32.3 percent from deep, which would tie for 11th in the ACC. Virginia Tech is the better shooting team, but the Dukes have capable scorers of their own.
Brooks’ squad has six players with at least 30 attempts from deep who shoot above the 30-percent mark. They shoot a lot of deep jumpers and make a lot of them, too. It’s one of the top 10 shooting teams in the country, but JMU boasts one of the top 15 three-point shooting defenses in college basketball. It’s good vs. good.
JMU needs Kamiah Smalls, Jackie Benitez and Madison Green to connect from deep to stay within striking distance, and the Dukes desperately need its defense to play well. If the Hokies shoot 40 percent or better from three-point territory, it’s going to be difficult to beat the ACC squad. Keep a close eye on Taylor Emery, she’s Virginia Tech’s leading scorer and shoots an impressive 38.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Crash the glass
During his time at JMU, Brooks made sure his teams could rebound well. O’Regan has kept that tradition alive in Harrisonburg. The Dukes lead the CAA and rank fourth nationally with an average of 44.3 rebounds per game. Virginia Tech ranks seventh in the ACC with 39.5 rebounds per game, but the Hokies rank last in the conference in offensive rebounds per game. Part of this is certainly due to a good overall shooting percentage, but the Hokies aren’t a dominant offensive rebounding team. JMU needs to limit second-chance opportunities. If a team that shoots the ball as well as Virginia Tech gets additional looks, it could be a long night.
It’s also worth looking at JMU’s lineup without Lexie Barrier. The junior guard, who is one of the team’s best rebounding options, is out for the season. Jackie Benitez and Madison Green have seen an increase in minutes with Barrier sidelines, and neither player is an elite rebounder. Look for extra pressure to be placed on Devon Merritt, Kayla Cooper-Williams and Aneah Young. Those three Dukes need to control the glass and limit Virginia Tech’s Regan Magarity, who averages a double double, from grabbing offensive rebounds.
The Convocation Center crowd isn’t going to be tame Thursday night. Expect a large, engaged crowd (and Pep Band) throughout the game. This will feel like one of the most important games both teams have played all season. The Hokies have more experience in hostile environments and big games than JMU, which could prove critical.
For JMU to win, the Dukes need to take advantage of the crowd and do their best to remain calm, especially early in the game. The Hokies have blown a few large leads this season, so it won’t be the end of the world if JMU gets down early, but falling into an early hole against a hot-shooting team isn’t a good plan, especially with Smalls banged up and Barrier out of the lineup. The Dukes aren’t built to erase double-digit leads.
JMU needs the crowd engaged throughout, which means staying close through the first quarter and handling the emotions of playing in a major game at home against an ACC foe. If the Dukes can get through the first 5-10 minutes and remain in touch, they’ll have a good chance to settle into the game and ride the crowd to a close win.
The bottom line
This is going to be fun. JMU vs. Virginia Tech and Sean O’Regan vs. Kenny Brooks is a matchup that makes JMU fans giddy. Win or lose, Thursday night in the Convocation Center is good for JMU basketball.