Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
My immediate reaction to JMU men’s basketball’s loss to South Alabama in the Sun Belt semifinals was negative.
The Dukes trailed the entire game. Their chances of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade were squashed.
Why was the roster constructed like a small-ball group despite a lack of consistent shooting? Why didn’t the coaches find a consistent rim protector and low-post scorer? That could’ve changed their entire season.
Why does this program always seem to fall short in key moments??
I was frustrated in the immediate moments after the season-ending loss! I wanted this program to make a leap forward in 2022-23. Instead, it took a step.
But it did take a step forward. JMU fans should acknowledge that fact.
I saw some fans (and I’ve been guilty of this at times) questioning Byington’s ceiling as coach. He’s never made an NIT or NCAA Tournament as a head coach. Will he ever do more than coach a 20-win team that falls short in a conference tournament??
Say what you will about his lack of postseason appearances, Byington took a rather mediocre Georgia Southern program and made them a consistent winner in the Sun Belt. They were pushing or exceeding 20 wins in just about every season, and they consistently finished above .500 in SBC play.
JMU won the CAA regular-season title in Byington’s first season. In year 2, they beat ODU, George Mason, and UVA. In Year 3, the Dukes finished fourth in the Sun Belt and made the semifinals of the conference tournament.
He’s a damn good coach.
Byington raised JMU’s floor significantly, and the Dukes are poised to win a Sun Belt title in the next three seasons. JMU needs to win a conference title in coming years, but for now, fans should appreciate that the Dukes have expectations again. They haven’t had many in the last two decades. Now, the Dukes will enter 2023-24 with the goal/realistic expectation of winning the Sun Belt regular season or tournament title.
JMU is significantly better than it was when Byington took over. That’s something.
JMU owns one of the best facilities in the Sun Belt. The Atlantic Union Bank Center is a marvelous building, and the Dukes were developing a solid home-court advantage late in the year. The arena represents a commitment within the athletic department to long-term basketball success. The athletic department seems committed to winning across all sports, a great sign for JMU’s future.
There’s potential for JMU to become one of the most consistent men’s basketball programs in the Sun Belt.
To maintain its recent level of success, the Dukes need to navigate recruiting and the transfer portal successfully. That’s a challenge with the one-time transfer rule, but Byington has done well to help the Dukes field talented rosters.
How will JMU handle a changing college sports landscape over the next 5, 10, 15 years? That’s a key question for every program at the university, and it will shape the men’s basketball program over the next decade. If the Dukes can find unheralded recruits and transfers, they have the resources to win a lot of mid-major basketball games.
If the AUBC becomes a consistent home-court advantage, JMU should finish in the top half of the Sun Belt for years to come. If the Dukes start winning more, nonconference teams should be more willing to schedule the Dukes, as they will actually benefit a team’s resume, rather than hurting it.
There’s reason to be bullish on the program’s long-term outlook.
In the short-term future, JMU needs a better low-post presence and more consistent 3-point shooting. The Dukes were all over the place from 3-point range this season, including shooting just 2-16 from deep in the season-ending loss to South Alabama.
The Dukes struggled in each of the last two seasons with 2-point defense, largely due to failures to block shots. JMU could use additional height and size in the post, even though Byington seems content to use smaller lineups. Could Jerrell Roberson take a step from a seldom-used freshman to a key contributor down low in 2023-24?
If the Dukes can improve their 2-point defense and make 3-pointers slightly more consistently, they should be dangerous. JMU does well to force turnovers, and they have players who attack the rim well projected to return next season.
In 2023, it’s also important to retain those key contributors, who could opt to play elsewhere. Terrence Edwards, Noah Freidel, Julien Wooden, Justin Amadi, and Tyree Ihenacho are able to return next season. Can Byington convince them all to stay? If he does, the Dukes will enter 2023-24 as one of the Sun Belt favorites.
Those five players are highly efficient, especially compared to some of JMU’s graduating players. If the Dukes add a key transfer or two to aid that lineup, JMU could take another notable step forward, especially as it relates to offensive efficiency.
Also, it’s vital to strengthen the 2023-24 schedule. JMU beat up on non-Division I and bad Division I teams in 2022-23. JMU needs to put together a stronger schedule in 2023-24, hopefully one that prepares the Dukes for conference play.
If the Dukes can schedule harder, improve 2-point defense and 3-point shooting, and build a home-court edge, they’re going to be a top-100 college basketball team in 2023-24. That’s a noteworthy step forward from five years ago that should excite JMU fans, even if the ending to 2022-23 stunk.
Thanks for the recap of the season. It helped get some perspective on a season that ended disappointingly and on my, for some reason I can’t figure out, less than enthusiastic feelings about Byington. He seems to prefer guys who are “wingmen” so everyone can shoot the 3 but the last 3 seasons have shown that style only takes you up to a point, especially if no one is making 3s as was the case several times this year. And you pointed out the lack of inside defense. 22 wins would have made me ecstatic years ago but now it’s good but not great. Heightened expectations coming a lot from who is coaching so I’ll try to get a better perspective on Byington.