Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU women’s basketball is back.
The Dukes might not win the Sun Belt Tournament this year, but they’ve returned to being the top dog in a conference. JMU won the regular season title, clinching an automatic berth into the WNIT. The Dukes will play in the postseason, and they’ll soon determine whether that’s the WNIT or the NCAA Tournament.
Really the only blemish on Sean O’Regan’s coaching resume is the lack of NCAA Tournament appearances. The Dukes have yet to make the Big Dance since he took over the program for the 2016-17 season, although they seemed poised to make the field (and maybe win a game or two??) when COVID-19 cancelled the 2020 season.
This is JMU’s best chance to make the NCAA Tournament since that 2019-20 season. Can the Dukes take advantage of the opportunity?
JMU is the No. 1 seed in the SBC Tournament, although really any team in the top six figures to have a decent chance of winning the league. Fortunately for JMU, the Dukes are undefeated against seeds 2-5 this season. They’ve done well against the league’s best, and they’ve earned the right to be the top seed.
JMU will open its tournament Friday against the winner of Marshall and Coastal Carolina. JMU actually has losses to both of these teams this season, so they won’t ease into the tournament by any means.
Should the Dukes get through that game, they’ll likely face a rematch with Troy or ODU in the conference semifinals on Sunday, March 5. That game would feel like a championship, as those two teams are phenomenal and plenty worthy of an NCAA bid.
JMU could may then face Texas State or Southern Miss in the title on Monday, March 6. There’s an outside possibility they play Georgia Southern, which is 2-0 against the Dukes. It’s a really hard path to an SBC title!
Key to success
Winning the Sun Belt is hard, but not impossible. JMU, when at its best, is special. Kiki Jefferson is the best player in the league, and the Dukes can defend at a high level. They have multiple scorers to supplement Jefferson. It might not be an easy path to a league title, but the Dukes absolutely have the team to get it done.
3-point defense is the key to JMU’s postseason run.
JMU is 19-1 when holding teams to 30% or worse from 3, and the team’s lone loss when holding a team to subpar 3-point shooting was a 60-58 loss to Maine in the season opener. Four of JMU’s five conference losses came when the Dukes’ opponent shot 45% or better from 3 against the Dukes.
When JMU defends the 3-point line, the Dukes are the best team in the Sun Belt.
Given the depth in the league, it’s hard to expect the Dukes to win the conference title, but at the very least JMU should make the semifinals. JMU has the best player in the conference, an elite defense, and impressive depth.
A team with Kiki Jefferson, Peyton McDaniel, and Kseniia Koslova should be a force in the Sun Belt Tournament. JMU needs to at least get by Marshall/Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals. After that, every game will be a dogfight for an NCAA berth.
If the Dukes lose in the semifinals or finals and make the WNIT, that’s still a successful season in my book.