Three things we want to see from JMU men’s basketball in CAA Play

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Typically, a basketball season preview from us features schedule analysis and a CAA record prediction.

COVID-19 makes that a dumb idea.

JMU’s men’s basketball team was supposed to open CAA play Sunday against Towson. Well, that changed Tuesday when it was announced Towson received a positive COVID-19 test result.

The Dukes will seek replacement games. By the time you read this, those games might be set. Then, they might change again. Who knows!

Scheduling in 2020 is a crapshoot, so we won’t dive into JMU’s CAA potential or how the league stacks up or any of those topics, since we don’t have any idea how many games the league will even be able to play.

Instead, let’s chat about three things I’d like to see in CAA play from JMU men’s basketball. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be CAA play. I want to see these three things whenever JMU plays basketball the rest of the season.

Clear development

Nobody expects Mark Byington to guide the Dukes to a CAA title and an NCAA Tournament berth in his first year. Add in the pandemic and Byington has little to no expectations.

The only thing JMU fans can and should expect is development.

Louis Rowe’s JMU teams seemed to struggle with the same issues in his first year as they did in his second, third and fourth seasons.

Under Rowe, JMU lacked offensive continuity. There rarely seemed to be a plan, and players seemed unsure of the offensive philosophy. Defensively, the Dukes were rarely active. They weren’t disruptive in passing lanes and rim protection was limited. The energy (and results) game to game seemed largely dependent on whether they were making shots.

KenPom ranks JMU as the 201st most efficient offense in the country, but the 301st most efficient defense. Neither mark is impressive, but the defensive toughness and consistency needs the most work for this program to win consistently. Teams are going to miss shots periodically, but good defense travels well.

Protecting leads and finishing games was also an issue during the Rowe era.

Under Byington, we want to see an increased killer instinct in close games. If the Dukes open up 10-point leads, the game should end with a JMU victory. Matt Lewis is a top-tier CAA player, and the Dukes should be able to lean on him, Vado Morse, Michael Christmas and Julien Wooden to close out games.

We want to see a group that improves from November to March each season, which was certainly not the case under Rowe.

For this year’s team, we want to see improvement in a couple specific areas.

First, we want fewer turnovers. Against ECU, JMU lost by nine and turned the ball over 19 times. Against VCU, JMU lost by one and turned the ball over 18 times. The Dukes beat Radford in arguably its best performance of the season — and its only win over a D1 team — with only eight turnovers in the victory 67-59 win. The defense and limited turnovers helped JMU win without playing its best basketball.

The Dukes need to be less sloppy with the basketball against good competition to become a decent mid-major.

We’d also like to see improved shooting numbers.

While it’s a small sample size, the Dukes are shooting 32.7% from 3-point range and 67.4% from the free-throw line this season. Even minor jumps in those numbers could help potential losses turn into victories. The Dukes are guard heavy, and they’re more than capable of improving shooting numbers. Better shot selection should help the 3-point numbers and additional practice and rhythm should bump up free-throw numbers to 70% or higher.

Finally, we just want to see the team fight more than in previous seasons. At times in the last few years, the Dukes seem discouraged by any negative events. From poor shooting to a bad break during a game or a heartbreaking loss, we rarely saw the Dukes rebound from rocky outings or a string of subpar possessions. They still competed most nights, but the lack of confidence was evident as games and seasons wore on.

JMU struggled to stack wins together under Rowe. At times that seemed caused by a lack of confidence that grew as the losses piled up.

A few wins and increased defensive toughness are going to be important for the Dukes.

It’s easier to buy into a coach’s messaging when you’re winning. Byington doesn’t need an undefeated CAA record, but winning a few games to help the team build confidence is necessary.

Michael Christmas minutes

Perhaps the most inexplicable part of Rowe’s final season was his unwillingness to play Michael Christmas.

In nine of JMU’s final 13 games last season, Christmas played fewer than 20 minutes. He played just three minutes in a pair of February contests.

A sophomore this season, Christmas hasn’t played much, but that was mostly due to missed time related to COVID-19 protocols. He’s played 19 minutes in each of the past two games.

Against Alice Lloyd, Christmas scored 12 points on seven shots and added four rebounds and a pair of steals. Against VCU, he scored 15 points on eight shots and added five boards.

Through just over a season at JMU, the sophomore is a 37.5% 3-point shooter. Per 40 minutes this season, Christmas averages 24 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists. It’s unlikely Christmas maintains that pace, but clearly good things occur when he’s on the floor.

He leads all JMU players with at least 40 minutes played in Player Efficiency Rating and ranks second behind Matt Lewis in Win Shares per 40 minutes. There are a bunch of advanced metrics that say Christmas has been productive in his very limited action this season.

Christmas, who was a 3-star recruit out of high school, is a good shooter. He’s athletic and can rebound the ball well from the wing. He possesses the physical tools to develop into a good defender. He’s one of the team’s best prospects in recent memory.

Maybe we’re wrong and the sophomore won’t develop into an All-CAA caliber player over the next couple seasons. Even if we are wrong, we want to see it play out.

Christmas is talented enough to be one of the best players in the conference. He just needs a chance.

Play games safely

Most importantly, we would like to see JMU play as many games as safely as possible this winter.

The Dukes paused before the season because of COVID-19. They paused again during the season because of the virus. They won’t play Towson this weekend and early next week because of COVID-19 issues at Towson.

It’s going to be a challenging winter for everyone. COVID-19 remains a major concern, and the virus will impact college basketball. We’re hopeful the team stays safe this winter and plays as much as it safely can.

We love JMU sports, and we want to see the teams in action. We also understand and appreciate the importance of staying safe during the pandemic. Here’s to hoping the Dukes safely play a bunch of games the next few months.

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