Assessing JMU Men’s and Women’s Basketball Entering Sun Belt Play

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

After completing nonconference play, both JMU men’s and women’s basketball look the part of Sun Belt title contenders.

The women’s side lost its season opener to Maine before rattling off 10 wins in its next 11 games, with the only loss coming to North Carolina. The Tar Heels are currently ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll at No. 6.

The men’s team is 9-4 overall with a pair of disappointing losses to Valparaiso and Coppin State, but they also played Virginia tough and have a number of blowout victories.

Let’s take a look at where each team stacks up entering Sun Belt play, which starts on Dec. 29.

Men’s basketball’s SBC outlook

SBC expectations: The Dukes should compete for the conference title. Marshall, Louisiana, and Southern Miss all played well in the nonconference, and Old Dominion has a solid team.

JMU isn’t a lock to win the league, but the Dukes should be in the mix. Finishing in the top three of the regular-season league standings feels like a conservative and attainable goal.

Positives from nonconference play: JMU’s point differential is +345. Playing three non-Division I teams helps that stat, but the Dukes blew out Hampton, Buffalo, Howard, South Dakota State, Eastern Kentucky, and LIU. They won each game by at least 17 points, showcasing offensive and defensive efficiency in those wins.

JMU nearly upset Virginia in Charlottesville, falling 55-50 in a competitive contest.

Negatives from nonconference play: JMU is 0-3 in games decided by single digits, and they’ve dropped a pair of horrible games to Valpo and Coppin State. At their best, the Dukes are really good, but they occasionally have rough 3-point shooting outings and can’t seem to make up for it defensively. Coppin State and Valpo each scored too easily on JMU.

Questions entering conference play: Just how good are the Dukes? They have depth, and they’ve looked good, but they played a horrendous nonconference schedule. Are they actually good enough to contend for the Sun Belt or were they taking advantage of horrible opposition?

Will Byington narrow down the rotation? The Dukes are deep, but will Byington opt to run primarily with a group of 7-8 instead of going with a 10-man rotation?

What will JMU get from Noah Freidel? The transfer from South Dakota State is highly talented, but he only played three minutes in the loss to Coppin State.

How good is the Sun Belt? Marshall seems decent, as do a few other teams. Are they actually any good? There’s a chance most of the SBC isn’t on the same level as JMU, setting up a prime opportunity to win 12-15 conference games.

Women’s basketball

SBC expectations: Like the men, the women should be in the mix for the conference title. JMU has a really talented roster, and the Dukes finished nonconference play on a seven-game winning streak.

Old Dominion figures to be one of the more competitive opponents in the league.

Positives from nonconference play: The seven-game winning streak is a good starting point. The Dukes won a few tight games against Liberty and VCU before statement wins over Eastern Michigan and St. Joe’s. Adding Kobe King-Hawea helps, as the Texas transfer became eligible in December. She adds a boost to the offense.

Negatives from nonconference play: At times the Dukes were inefficient, struggling with 3-point shooting and turnovers. An opening loss to Maine was disappointing.

Questions entering conference play: Can JMU be an offensive juggernaut? With Kiki Jefferson, King-Hawea, Peyton McDaniel, and others, the Dukes have the pieces to be the best offense in the Sun Belt.

Can they stay healthy? Under Sean O’Regan, the Dukes have put themselves in position for special seasons, only for injuries and other factors to derail those postseason plans. Here’s to hoping the Dukes finally enter late February and early March fully healthy.

Where’s that home-court advantage? JMU is 11-9 at home dating back to the start of last season. It’s time for the Dukes to get back to dominating at home (in 2018-19 they went 18-1) during league play. If the Dukes can excel at home, they’ll be set up to win the conference.

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