What does JMU women’s basketball need to do to make the Big Dance?

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Sean O’Regan is a fantastic coach.

The leader of JMU women’s basketball is 107-33 in just over four seasons since taking over the head coaching duties from Kenny Brooks. Surprisingly, O’Regan has never taken the Dukes to the NCAA Tournament.

Most of this comes down to bad luck — the Dukes were the massive favorite to win the conference tournament and the CAA’s autobid into the NCAA Tournament last season before COVID-19 hit. The year prior, injuries knocked out several of JMU’s best players in the opening round of the CAA Tournament.

O’Regan’s best squads were the groups he put in the floor 2018-19 and 2019-20. Bad luck popped up both times, keeping them out of the Big Dance.

This year, the Dukes are extremely young, but they were still picked to win the conference. Through nonconference play, JMU is 4-3 with some solid showings and three double-digit losses. There’s a ton of potential on the roster, and there’s also significant room for development and growth.

JMU is far from a lock to win the CAA Tournament and gain automatic entry into the Big Dance, but the Dukes should be in the mix come March. Here’s what the Dukes need to happen to make the NCAA Tournament this season.

Stay healthy

For JMU to win the CAA Tournament and ultimately the conference title, it needs to have a full roster or very close to a full roster throughout the season and especially when the conference tournament rolls around later this season.

The pandemic makes that a bigger challenge than normal seasons. Avoiding the virus is important all season, and it’s particularly important toward the end of the year as the Dukes aim to make a postseason run. Staying healthy and safely practicing is a key to success in 2020-21.

When JMU’s roster is healthy, the Dukes are a handful.

Kiki Jefferson is one of the most versatile players in the CAA, averaging 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. She’s also second on the team in assists, while ranking second in steals and third in blocked shots. She’s only a sophomore.

Freshmen Peyton McDaniel and Jamia Hazell are elite scorers, both posing threats to opposing defenses. Rayne Tucker and Anne Diouf add a consistent interior presence.

Plenty of other players also contribute to a deep and talented squad. Twelve players have earned minutes this season, with eight players averaging 15 or more minutes when they take the court.

Improve defensively

Playing elite defense is a staple of JMU’s program. This season, the offense is ahead of the defense.

JMU’s young players can score with ease, but it’s clear there’s still defensive work to be done. They’ve allowed at least 80 points in all three losses, with Maryland dropping 101 points on the Dukes in their most recent game.

O’Regan wasn’t pleased following the loss to the Terrapins. David Driver put together a good read with plenty of comments from O’Regan.

JMU isn’t used to allowing 100 points to anyone. While Maryland’s offense is superb, the effort and defensive intensity from the Dukes fell well short of program standards. JMU needs better defense to win the CAA.

The Dukes are young and at times streaky on offense. There will be off shooting nights. If the defense can’t pick up the slack when the shots aren’t falling, JMU will lose a handful of conference games.

Conference tournaments add pressure, and it’s likely the Dukes won’t be completely on their game shooting the ball at least one of the days. That’s when stellar defense can carry the team.

Learn from negatives

O’Regan said at a recent presser that he doesn’t envision this team going undefeated in CAA play. Add the unusual format of games — the Dukes play the same team on consecutive days for most of conference action — and it’s unlikely JMU runs the table in conference.

There are going to be subpar showings. There will likely be losses. JMU needs to learn from those.

The name of the game is development. For JMU to reach its potential this season, it needs to grow throughout the conference season.

The Dukes need to better take care of the ball, as they’ve committed 118 turnovers through seven games. That’s an average of nearly 17 turnovers per game. Learning to better take care of the ball when attacking in transition is an area of growth for the Dukes’ young squad.

For JMU to win the CAA title, the Dukes need to be willing to learn. They’re supremely talented, but the best JMU teams blend talent with defensive intensity and an impressive grit. We’ve seen JMU put on shooting displays in the past, but we’ve also seen this program win games by holding opponents to 50 or fewer points on a regular basis.

When viewing the program from a big-picture perspective, this season isn’t make or break. If the Dukes fall short of the NCAA Tournament with a young team during a pandemic, it’s not a big deal.

If the Dukes develop well this season, though, they’ll set themselves up to be a quality team heading into next season. By this time next year, there’s a good chance fans are allowed in the stands. Experienced teams in 2021-22 and 2022-23 with significant home-court advantages could develop into one of the best mid-major teams in the country.

JMU is good enough to win the CAA this season, but they’ll need to develop defensively and embrace the losses and poor showings along the way.

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