Is … JMU Men’s Basketball Good?

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

“I’m telling you, come out clean on the other side,” Louis Rowe said. “Say to yourself, ‘I’m not feeling this way next year.’”

JMU’s former head coach knew his time as the program’s head coach was coming to an end. As he addressed the media after the Dukes’ 63-61 loss to Elon in the first round of the 2020 CAA Tournament, he made that remark toward Matt Lewis.

“Say to yourself, ‘I’m not feeling this way next year.'”

That’s the message he wanted his star to remember.

I’m not feeling this way next year.

I’m not feeling this way next year.

Tuesday, JMU and new head coach Mark Byington completed a regular-season sweep of Elon. The same Elon program that knocked JMU out of the conference tournament a season ago. Lewis scored a game-high 22 points in the win.

JMU won 70-61 Tuesday in a game where it didn’t even play all that well. The Dukes shot 38.7%, making just 28.6% of their 3-point shots. JMU wasn’t at its best, while simultaneously showcasing why it’s better than last season.

Winning a game when you don’t play your best? That’s a foreign thought to JMU men’s basketball fans. The Dukes haven’t done that in recent years. They went 2-16 in CAA play a season ago.

Heck, they didn’t play their best in most games last season, but they rarely worked through it to avoid the awful feeling of losing to conference foes. Bad showings led to blowout losses, not nine-point wins.

Tuesday, and this season, the Dukes eagerly face challenges. They respond to in-game adversity like a team with a strong culture.

When the shots don’t fall, they try to make up for it on the defensive end by forcing turnovers and being active. Defenders don’t have their hands by their sides, but rather active above their waists and in passing lanes. When a team goes on a run, they don’t get rattled. When needed, Byington calls timeout and settles his team down.

They come together and fight a little harder following bad possessions, often leaning on Lewis when they need a momentum-shifting basket.

“I’m not feeling this way next year.”

Matt Lewis could’ve transferred.

He tossed his name into the NBA Draft for a bit, mostly hoping for feedback from scouts. He could’ve taken the feedback, transferred like some of his peers and gone elsewhere. Nobody would’ve blamed him, just like nobody should fault the trio of key contributors in 2019-20 who departed the program.

Instead, Matt Lewis stayed in Harrisonburg. He decided to play under Byington and finish his career as a Duke.

As of Feb. 9, Lewis is the best player in the CAA and the frontrunner for CAA Player of the Year. He was good a season ago. He’s a great CAA player today.

Whatever Lewis did this offseason to train during a pandemic, it worked. His 3-point shot is pure. He finishes near the rim. He limits turnovers. And perhaps most impressively, he leads his teammates. Lewis trusts freshmen teammates to shoot and involves his peers.

He’s JMU’s unquestioned leader.

In the first meeting with Elon, about a week ago, an Elon player pulled Lewis to the ground toward the end of JMU’s 21-point win. Lewis got up, heated.

As Lewis angrily popped up off the floor, Lewis’ teammates ran over to the play. Julien Wooden was assessed a technical foul for shoving an Elon player, and Justin Amadi easily could’ve earned one as well. Not an ideal moment, sure, but a clear illustration of Lewis’ pull among teammates.

There’s no telling how much or how little Rowe’s remarks following the last game of his JMU head coaching tenure meant to Lewis in the moment or the months after. But it’s evident that Matt Lewis doesn’t want to feel like he felt at the end of last season.

That’s clear by the work he put in this offseason. That’s clea rby the way he defends this season after not always being committed on that end of the floor in previous years. That’s clear by his ability to score a clutch basket every time JMU needs one.

For JMU fans, it’s been a long time since the men’s basketball program was relevant. In recent seasons, football season was followed by sadness.

Excitement over the women’s basketball program never wavered, but something always felt off as one basketball program excelled and the other floundered. They shared a building, but the results couldn’t be more polarizing.

As the Dukes’ relevance faded, so did interest. Students barely cared about men’s basketball season. Alumni kept tabs from afar, typically writing off the squad before March.

JMU men’s basketball fans became apathetic.

This season feels different. Maybe it’s because more people are stuck at home during the pandemic. Maybe it’s people falling in love with the price of FloSports and wanting to watch every incredible broadcast. OK, maybe it’s not that one.

Maybe it’s the new arena. Maybe it’s just the wins.

Whatever the case, there’s a growing buzz about this basketball program. There’s a budding interest in the Dukes. There’s, dare I say, hope.

Last season, like most other recent seasons, JMU men’s basketball fans felt frustrated. They felt upset. They were disappointed. Long gone were the days of the Electric Zoo.

Maybe the Dukes won’t feel that way at the end of this year. Maybe, like Louis Rowe implored, the Dukes will come out clean on the other side.

I don’t know how this season ends. I don’t know if it ends happily with a CAA Tournament title and a spot in the Big Dance. I don’t know if it ends with an immediate CAA Tournament exit, followed by watching another team celebrate a conference championship on JMU’s home floor.

I don’t know what the next month holds for JMU men’s basketball. Nobody does.

Not knowing JMU men’s basketball’s CAA fate in February? Well that feels like progress.

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