Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
It’s that time of the year, folks. Jon Rothstein is Tweeting weird catchphrases at an alarming rate, Power Five schools are playing exhibitions against random local colleges, and Duke men’s basketball is the preseason pick to win the ACC even though Virginia or Florida State will probably win the league instead.
In other words, college basketball season has arrived.
For JMU fans in recent years, that hasn’t always been exciting news. This year, thanks to a resurgence from the men’s side, JMU fans have plenty of reasons to be pumped up.
Given the recent news that JMU is leaving the CAA for the Sun Belt in coming years and the fact that it’s football season, it’s easy to forget that JMU’s basketball teams start play this week. I’ll hit the basics about the Dukes in this preview.
Kiki Jefferson, in my opinion, is the current face of JMU basketball.
She’s a CAA Player of the Year candidate as a junior. Jefferson, in two collegiate seasons, has averaged 12.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest. She averaged 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game a season ago.
It’s rare that a player with Jefferson’s size — she’s 6’1″ — plays guard at the CAA level. She’s able to play just about every position on the floor. Her shooting is exceptional. Her defense is solid.
There’s a lot to like about Jefferson, and she’s the unquestioned star for the women’s team.
On the men’s side, Vado Morse enters his redshirt junior season as a star for men’s basketball. He was an All-CAA third-team performer last year, his first season in Harrisonburg. The Mount St. Mary’s transfer averaged 14.4 points per game, serving as a stellar complement to Matt Lewis.
With Lewis gone to the professional level, Morse should step up as a leader in the backcourt. It’s hard to know if Morse will end the season as the clear star for the men’s team, given the Dukes’ depth, especially at guard.
Key question: Can the women make the NCAA Tournament?
JMU’s 2019 squad seemed poised to make the NCAA Tournament. A flurry of unfortunate injuries late in the season derailed the team’s chances.
In 2020, the Dukes were playing fantastic basketball. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ended their season prematurely. Last year’s young team was competitive in the CAA Tournament but fell short of the Big Dance.
Can this year be the year JMU makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015-16? If it is, the Dukes have to earn an at-large bid.
The CAA enforced a bylaw that allows it to keep JMU teams out of the CAA Tournament this year, since the Dukes are leaving for the Sun Belt. That means the women’s basketball team has to earn an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
It’ll be a tough ask, but a challenging schedule (JMU opens with UVA and faces No. 4 Maryland on Nov. 14, among other marquee games) gives JMU opportunities to build its resume. If the Dukes pick up massive nonconference wins, they can position themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
An at-large berth isn’t impossible for Sean O’Regan’s team.
Key question: Is the men’s team … good?
After going 43-85 under Louis Rowe, the men’s team went 13-7 and 8-2 in the CAA in Mark Byington’s first season.
With Matt Lewis gone, we’ll learn more about Byington as a coach. Can the Dukes — who added a handful of transfers — build off last season? How will they look without the CAA’s best player on their side.
I’m bullish on the men’s team’s prospects this season. While the Dukes can’t compete in the CAA Tournament, they should finish near the top of the CAA regular-season standings. An at-large berth is highly unlikely, but if the team shows progress and performs well within the league, that’s a good step forward.
JMU has only had consecutive winning seasons once this century. That’s when the Dukes went 19-14 in 2014-15 and 21-11 in 2015-16. Matt Brady was fired after the 21-win season, a questionable decision that signaled JMU wanted to become an elite mid-major program rather than a competent one.
The Dukes then struggled under Rowe, and now appear back to being competent. Can they take another step forward?
Home games against Old Dominion, George Mason, and Virginia represent major opportunities for the program to start building credibility within the Commonwealth.
It’s hard not to like what the women’s team boasts across the lineup.
Claire Neff showed promise last season, and she could be due for a big sophomore season. Peyton McDaniel is a top-tier scoring threat.
Jamia Hazell is a budding star, and Steph Ouderkirk is a local product with good skill. Madison Green and Jaylin Carodine boast excellent experience.
Annalicia Goodman will be needed in the post with Rayne Tucker having transferred to Towson.
The men’s side features a large group of transfers. A large number of players can contribute within this group.
Charles Falden, a Winthrop transfer, should be a stud at guard. Tyree Ihenacho can do a bit of everything on the floor, from passing to rebounding to scoring.
Molson, who most recently played at Seton Hall, should be a mismatch for CAA teams. JMU’s No. 1 question is low-post play. What can the Dukes get out of Justin Amadi, Julien Wooden and Alonzo Sule? JMU doesn’t have a player over 6-feet-8-inches tall.
A final thought
JMU opened the Atlantic Union Bank Center during the pandemic with limited capacity. This year, thousands of fans will be able to support the Dukes from the gorgeous new building.
A few decades ago, JMU hosted rowdy crowds in the Convocation Center — or so I’m told. Can “The Bank” develop into a venue that hosts thousands of die-hard fans on a regular basis?
The new arena had been in the works for years. To have it opened, and welcoming fans, is special.
I can’t wait to visit.