Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU’s men’s basketball program is inching toward respectability.
The Dukes were woeful at times during the Louis Rowe era despite occasional signs they might turn a corner, but Mark Byington has led the team to an improved level since taking over as head coach. They’re capable of finishing with winning records, a baby step forward.
JMU won the CAA regular season title in 2020, Byington’s first season. An injury to Matt Lewis derailed the team’s hopes, and they blew a CAA Tournament lead without their superstar. Last season, JMU defeated ODU, George Mason, and Virginia at home before limping home down the stretch as motivation waned and injuries mounted.
This season, the Dukes join the Sun Belt with an experienced roster and a legitimate chance to win a mediocre league.
The Dukes are loaded at guard, and they’ve added some depth at forward, which should help a team that struggled mightily defending two-point shots last season. Vado Morse headlines the guards, and he’s a likely candidate to lead JMU in scoring. South Dakota State transfer Noah Freidel is also a bucket, and he’s a career 39.2% 3-point shooter. That’s solid.
Terell Strickland offers quickness as a defender and point guard, and he’s a capable contributor off the bench. Terrence Edwards and Tyree Ihenacho might be two of the most versatile players on the roster. They can pass, defend, score, and handle the ball. Edwards is the more gifted scorer, but Ihenacho’s passing and size make him a likely contributor.
Takal Molson plays more like a small forward than a true guard, but he can play shooting guard. He hit clutch shots a season ago after joining the team as a transfer, and he figures to play a key role this year. Molson is coming off an injury that cut his 2021-22 season short.
Xavier Brown and Brycen Blaine are talented freshmen, but it’ll be hard to earn playing time this season. The other guards are walk-ons unlikely to see meaningful minutes.
At forward, Ben Hall and Shane Feden are walk-ons. Everyone else has a legitimate shot to earn playing time, although Jerrell Roberson may become a major contributor later in his career. The freshman’s size makes him a fascinating prospect, as he’s long with good shooting touch.
Justin Amadi, Mezie Offurum, and Alonzo Sule figure to be highly efficient offensive players and solid defenders. Offurum, a transfer from Mount St. Mary’s, is an athletic player who looks tremendous when playing downhill.
Wooden isn’t a post player, but his shooting and experience make him someone likely to see playing time.
The roster is deep, but Byington has time to find a rotation that’ll work late in the season. It’s likely some of the scholarship players will see reduced roles as the season progresses and JMU’s head coach figures out what works and what doesn’t.
I love JMU sports, but even I’m bored by the men’s basketball team’s schedule.
The Dukes have nonconference road games with North Carolina and Virginia. Those are exciting, but the Dukes are also expected to lose by double digits. Those are the only two games on JMU’s schedule against top-125 KenPom teams, and the opponents are in KenPom’s top 10.
Essentially, JMU has two games against elite ACC programs and a whole bunch of meh the rest of the season. That’s partially because the Sun Belt is a meh mid-major conference. Games against ODU and Marshall could be somewhat intriguing, though, from an on-court and regional perspective.
The nonconference schedule is yucky, with the Dukes playing three games against non-Division I programs. That’s three more than I’d prefer to see on the schedule.
Oh well. Not every year can have a loaded schedule. Unfortunately, this year’s schedule features plenty of bland matchups.
JMU should contend for the Sun Belt title and win 20+ games, given the team’s pillow soft schedule and experienced roster. I like Byington, and this feels like the time for him to prove his ability as a coach. You have a quality team in an average conference. Go get a conference title.
At the very least, it’d be nice to see JMU in the mix to win the Sun Belt Championship. JMU men’s basketball was a fantastic program with tremendous fan support a few decades ago. JMU, with its new arena, can get back to being a competitive mid-major team.
The best way to engage fans? Win. Take advantage of the easy schedule and win a bunch of games. Compete well in the conference tournament, making a push to at least the semifinals. Show fans that NIT and NCAAT appearances are on the way.
I expect the Dukes to build off successes the last two seasons, finishing with 20+ wins and having as good a chance as any team in the SBC Tournament to punch a ticket to the Big Dance.