Image courtesy of JMU athletics communications
By Bennett Conlin
There’s no denying that JMU fans have been spoiled in recent years. From the football team’s consistent FCS success to the lacrosse team’s national title to the softball team’s Women’s College World Series run, JMU’s athletic programs are elite at the mid-major level.
The one notable exception has been the men’s basketball program. After impressive results from 1973-1993, the Dukes haven’t been all that relevant over the last 30 years. In fact, the Dukes haven’t won more than 21 games in a season since 1981-82.
Fortunately, the program looks like it’s headed in a positive direction under head coach Mark Byington. The 2021-22 team defeated Old Dominion, George Mason, and UVA. Injuries were among the factors that derailed the 2021-22 season, and the CAA banning JMU from the conference tournament kept fans from possibly seeing the program return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
With JMU entering the Sun Belt, the basketball program regains postseason eligibility in 2022-23, and the Dukes have a team capable of making the NCAA Tournament. JMU isn’t knocking on the door of national relevance quite yet, but significant progress is possible in the next 3-5 years.
JMU’s roster will feature plenty of talent at the guard position, as a group of players figures to compete in the offseason for legitimate playing time. Much of the team’s scoring will likely come from players shorter than 6’7″.
Vado Morse, R-Sr, 6′, 170 lbs – An elite scoring option, Morse will likely start for the Dukes. He’s a capable ball handler and passer, although it’s his ability to knock down 3-pointers and score in the paint that makes him one of JMU’s most valuable players. Morse’s jumper is funky to watch, which leads to some inconsistency (he had seven games last season where he attempted at least five 3-pointers and made fewer than 25% of those attempts), but when he’s playing well (he had eight 20-point games last year), he’s going to be one of the most dangerous scoring options in the Sun Belt.
I’m high on Morse, especially if he finds the balance between hunting his shot and facilitating for teammates. If he’s having poor shooting night, I’d like to see him work harder to distribute the ball, but it’s hard to fault the scoring threat for wanting to put up dozens of shots each night.
Terell Strickland, R-So, 6′, 170 lbs – An issue with some of JMU’s guards is 3-point shooting, and Strickland is among those with an inconsistent jumper (26.7% from 3-point range in his college career). Defensively, however, he’s a quality contributor. Strickland is athletic and can create steals easily. He’s also a good passer and does well to set up teammates on the offensive end. An injury ended Strickland’s 2021-22 season early.
Noah Freidel, R-Jr, 6’4″, 200 lbs – A South Dakota State transfer, Freidel gives JMU a top-tier shooter. Freidel knocked down 39.2% of his 3-pointers while playing for the Jackrabbits, and he’ll fill the scoring role vacated by Charles Falden. Freidel was an important addition this offseason, and his shooting helps space the floor.
Tyree Ihenacho, R-So, 6’4″, 195 lbs – I have a man crush on Ihenacho’s game. He’s good on defense, he rebounds well, and he passes the ball exceptionally. He’s not necessarily a natural shooter or scorer, but he’s capable of being a dynamic offensive and defensive threat.
JMU is lucky to have Ihenacho, and he deserves ample playing time. Given his size, he can defend small forwards if needed.
Xavier Brown, Fr, 6’1″ – I’m not expecting Brown to play much, if at all, in 2022-23. Regardless, his senior season stats are hard to ignore. Brown averaged 28.6 points, 6.7 assists, 6.6 rebounds, and two steals per game in his final high school season. The incoming freshman has potential, even if fans don’t get to see him on the court for another season or two.
Brycen Blaine, Fr, 6’5″ – The combo guard played high school basketball in both Virginia and Georgia, and he played in both stops. He also put up nice numbers on the AAU circuit, and figures to have a chance to contribute in a couple years. Like Brown, there’s good potential, but it’ll be hard for a freshman guard to earn playing time given JMU’s depth at the position.
These three players don’t quite fit into the guard or forward position. I’d consider them wing players, although they all have different strengths and levels of athleticism. Edwards plays like a true wing, while Molson plays more like a guard, and Wooden is built more like a forward than a guard.
Takal Molson, Gr. 6’4″, 210 lbs – His late-game shotmaking proved massive in the win over UVA, and Molson is capable of being one of the best players in the Sun Belt. He’s not a great outside shooter, but his size and strength makes him a good offensive threat (he has three seasons averaging 12+ points per game during his college career) and a solid defender. He’s recovering from a knee injury that ended his 2021-22 season, but should be healthy for upcoming season.
Terrence Edwards, R-So, 6’6″, 190 lbs – Edwards thrived at the end of last season with some of his peers injured. In the first 14 games of the season, Edwards scored in double figures twice. In the last 15, he scored 10+ points 11 times. When given a chance to play consistently, he showcased an impressive offensive game. While not a great 3-point shooter, Edwards attacks the rim well and has good size.
He’s a valuable player given his ability to score, rebound, and defend. If he adds a consistent outside shot, he becomes one of the most complete players on JMU’s roster.
Julien Wooden, R-Jr, 6’8″, 220 lbs – While not as athletic as some of his teammates, Wooden is capable of attacking the rim and knocking down perimeter shots. He’s not quite a guard or a power forward, but he can play small forward or power forward against mid-major competition. I’d like to see Wooden rebound more aggressively and not settle for outside jump shots. He’s made 40 3-pointers over the last two seasons, but he’s arguably most productive when he’s willing to enter the paint.
JMU isn’t that big, but the team has enough experience and talent at forward to compete in the Sun Belt. The Dukes could use increased shot-blocking and rebounding from their forwards, and that figures to be a point of emphasis for Byington ahead of this season.
Justin Amadi, R-So, 6’7″, 220 lbs – High-flying Justin Amadi presents an interesting combination of skills. Amadi jumps with the best of them, and he moves well for his size. He’s strong as well, which allows him to hold his own against opposing small and power forwards.
I’d like to see Amadi rebound more consistently on the defensive end, however, but he posted a decent offensive rebound rate last season. He doesn’t create his own shot often, but he’s a capable scorer and a solid defender.
Mezie Offurum, R-Sr, 6’8″, 230 lbs – The incoming transfer reminds me of a baby Giannis. Listen, I know he’s not an NBA MVP, but he plays downhill with ferocity that reminds me slightly of the Bucks’ superstar. Offurum gives JMU a much-needed potential contributor in the frontcourt.
Offurum can rebound and block shots, and JMU was among the nation’s worst at defending 2-point shots. He helps on both ends, and he was a necessary addition through the transfer portal.
Alonzo Sule, Gr, 6’7″, 215 lbs – I like Sule’s game, even if he isn’t an elite scorer. He’s competent as a low-post scorer, and he defends quite well when healthy. Sule’s defense is needed on a team that needs to take a step forward defensively this season. Given JMU’s scoring options at guard and on the wing, the Dukes don’t need much offense from its forwards to still be a top team in the Sun Belt.
Jerrell Roberson, Fr, 6’9″ – An incoming freshman, Roberson possesses elite size compared to his JMU peers. Roberson can make 3-point shots and block shots, giving him potential to be a highly efficient big man in the Sun Belt. Will that be this season? It may take a year or so for Roberson to develop into a college contributor, but the potential is there for a successful career in Harrisonburg.
Potential concerns for JMU include 3-point shooting outside of Morse and Freidel and low-post production. The roster isn’t perfect, but neither is the Sun Belt. JMU’s roster includes depth and experience, which should lead to strong competition for minutes. An injury or two shouldn’t derail the season given the team’s depth.
I’m high on JMU and expect the Dukes to contend for the Sun Belt title, especially if Amadi, Sule, Offurum, and Roberson play well. The guards are going to be solid, and if JMU’s forwards step up, the Dukes could be a dangerous mid-major.