Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU men’s basketball’s last conference tournament game came on March 7, 2021. The Dukes’ last win in a conference tournament game occurred on March 9, 2019.
Saturday, JMU plays its first Sun Belt Tournament game, and the Dukes enter the event with a legitimate chance to win and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. They’re not the favorite, but they’re expected to contend for the title as the No. 4 seed.
JMU will first face Troy/the winner of Coastal Carolina and Arkansas State. The Dukes are a combined 3-0 against those teams, although the lone win over Troy was a competitive overtime game. Assuming Troy gets out of that first round, the Dukes will have their hands full against a program that plays great defense and has won six of their lasts seven contests.
From there, a possible date with No. 1 Southern Miss looms in the semifinals. The Golden Eagles defeated JMU 83-70 in their one meeting this season. That’s a tough matchup for the Dukes, but it’s also worth noting that No. 8 South Alabama is one of the hottest teams in the conference. The Jaguars are plenty capable of beating App State and Southern Miss to set up a South Alabama-JMU matchup in the semifinals.
If JMU makes the championship game, it could face Marshall or Louisiana. I’d love to see JMU-Marshall Part 3, but if the Dukes make the conference championship, I’ll be happy regardless of opponent.
The SBC has some solid teams this season, so none of JMU’s expected matchups in the conference tournament look easy.
Keys to success
JMU is 13-2 when it shoots better than 35% from the 3-point line and 8-8 when it doesn’t. “Make shots” is a rather simplistic key to success, but for JMU to win the Sun Belt Championship, the Dukes need competent 3-point shooting.
The Dukes are 15-6 when committing fewer than 15 turnovers in a game, while going 6-4 in games with more than 15 turnovers. Limiting offensive miscues and shooting decently from 3-point range usually gives JMU a good chance to win games.
JMU is 1-4 when it shoots under 35% from 3-point range and turns the ball over 15 or more times. The Dukes, when they don’t shoot themselves in the foot with offensive sloppiness, are dangerous.
That’s because JMU has one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt. While the Dukes don’t have a shot blocker, they force turnovers at an elite rate.
JMU is 12-4 when it forces at least 15 turnovers, and two of the four losses came in overtime. Another one of the four losses was a one-point loss in regulation. When JMU’s defense is active and effectively forces steals and other turnovers, the Dukes are extremely challenging to beat, and they’re essentially impossible to blow out.
I’d like to see JMU be competitive in the Sun Belt Tournament. If they lost to Troy by single digits in the opening round, that’s not an automatic failure. The Sun Belt is surprisingly deep this year, and it’s a solid mid/low-major league. It’s hard to win conference tournaments.
JMU’s men’s basketball program is trending in the right direction, but other JMU programs (football, women’s basketball, lacrosse, softball, etc.) have set their respective standard of consistently contending for championships. The men’s basketball team hasn’t. We can’t expect the Dukes to win the championship this season, but can we expect them to look competitive as they grow into an annual conference title threat.
At the same time, it’s fair to demand a little something from the men’s basketball program after decades of futility. The Dukes haven’t won a league tournament game since 2019. Go get at least one win!