Wednesday, February 25, 2015

#CAAhoops Primer: JMU Postures for Regular Season Championship tonight at UNC-Wilmington

The last time I posted on here, JMU Men's Basketball was 13-9 and a few hours away from getting shellacked, 84-65, by Marcus Thornton and the Pantless Gryphons.

But today, things are different. The Dukes have endured February brilliantly, posting a 5-1 record this month with two games left in the regular season. More importantly, they genuinely look like a better team every time they step on the court. Matt Brady has the boys cooking. They haven't lost a game in three weeks. And they're staring down the biggest men's basketball game in two years.

Yep. Today's the day. UNC-Wilmington hosts the JMU Dukes tonight. Here's what you need to know.

Once again, the CAA is a clusterf... well, you know.

Every year, it feels like the Colonial Athletic Association has a pair of teams vying for the title right down to the final week. But this year takes that narrative to a whole new level. Four teams -- Northeastern, William & Mary, Wilmington, and the aforementioned Dukes -- have identical first-place 11-5 records. According to Yeager and the boys in the CAA office, that officially makes the CAA the "most competitive regular-season race in the nation." Is this conference ever not fun?

Anyway, there's a lot at stake in the mid-week games. Of the four first-place teams, tonight's contest in Wilmington is the last time any of the four will play either of the other three teams, at least until a potential matchup in the CAA tournament. In fact, with the exception of JMU's Saturday game against Hofstra, there are no regular season games left where one of the first-place teams will play an opponent with a record over .500.

Translation: if someone is going to drop a game, it's going to mean choking on their own vomit harder than Krysten Ritter did in Breaking Bad.

JMU is on the verge of its first conference title in 15 years.

I touched on this briefly in the last Consortium, but JMU hasn't won at least a share of the CAA title since the 1999-2000 season, AKA the last good season before the arrival of one Matthew Crenshaw Brady. (Editor's Note: Matt Brady's middle name is definitely not Crenshaw.) If they win out, they'll have earned a piece of it, even though they would probably play as only the No. 3 seed in Baltimore next weekend.

Matt Brady can lock up his fourth 20-win season as head coach in Harrisonburg.

Again, I touched on this during the last Consortium post with Proffitt, Carleigh, and JMUSB, but Matt Brady has survived this long in Harrisonburg by racking up 20-win seasons every other year. Normally, he needs the postseason tournaments to finish out. This year, with a big win tonight at Trask and a win at home over the Pride on Saturday, Brady will hit the mark before even looking at Baltimore-bound Greyhounds.

The more things change, the more they stay the same:

A stat I pointed out during the last post: JMU was 6-0 against the teams below them and 0-3 against the teams on their level. JMU is now primed to grab a part of the conference title, but has anything really changed? The Dukes are 11-5 in conference play, with 11 wins against the bottom six teams and 5 losses against the rest of the top four. If the Dukes want the championship, they're going to have to earn it tonight. They're going to have to beat someone that's actually good.

Big Play: 

Ron Curry is playing all-conference basketball, and his thumbprints on JMU's winning streak are hard to miss. But I would argue that it's the Bigs for JMU who are elevating the team's game to championship levels. Tom Vodonavich is finally settling into his role as a glass-crasher, and Dalembert's game continues to look more and more polished. If they combine for 15 rebounds or more, watch out.

But it's not just those two guys. Paulius Satkus is playing better minutes down the stretch as well, Jackson Kent is averaging nearly four boards a game, and Dimitrije! The Serb! My Lord. You know what? Serb gets his own bullet point.

It's spelled C-A-B-A-R-K-A-P-A.

Back when I was at the Breeze, we ran a feature in one of our Sports Supplements about a bigass Eastern European dude who had just showed up in Harrisonburg to ball for Brady. We didn't even attempt to pronounce his name correctly; we just called him Serb. He rolled with it. In fact, he was one the coolest and most down-to-Earth people I ever met at JMU. The fact that he was a full foot taller than me was just happen-stance.

Serb is my fucking hero. The dude is a monster. I prayed every game that Brady would just cut him loose and let him out there to posterize some poor guard from Philadelphia or Trenton. But the word I kept getting from the team and guys around them was that his game was just way too raw to ever put him out on the floor. He was an offensive liability.


Yeah. I'm kind of a fan.

Closing Time:

JMU is 16-0 when leading with five minutes to play, per tireless JMU ambassador and FOTB Curtis Finnigan Dudley. (Editor's Note: Curt Dudley's middle name is definitely not Finnigan.)

Draw a straight line to Ron Curry for this one. Strong ball distribution and ball security from Curry and Co. is a huge factor in the Dukes' new-found ability to actually close games out, which is definitely something that hasn't historically been a strength. When Wilmington breaks out the press tonight, all eyes will be on the guards -- but mainly Curry -- to maintain possession of the ball.

Baltimore or Bust?

JMU is the hottest team in the conference right now, and for sheer streakiness alone, should probably be considered the favorite to win the CAA tournament. A win tonight keeps them on pace for one of the top three seeds there.

But let's hold off on the Baltimore chatter for just a few more days. JMU has as good a shot as anyone as lifting the CAA trophy in the harbor and reaching its second NCAA tournament in three years. That would be huge, and it would validate 2013 as not just lightning in a bottle, but a distinctive upward trend for Brady's program after seven erratically dichotic years.

But for now, focus on what's right in front of the Dukes: a shot at the CAA regular season title. It's been 15 years since the JMU men could claim a portion of that banner. Isn't it about time?


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Consortium V: JMU Looks for Key CAA Win vs William & Mary (And Other Mid-Season Ponderings)

It's time for another roundtable, and the gang's all here. By now, you know the drill -- I've gathered a few friends in the JMU sports community, and we're here to talk basketball.

Our panelists today -- Stephen Proffitt, in his fourth year of beat-writing on JMU MBB; Carleigh Davis, former Sports Editor at the Breeze and noted Matt Brady critic; Rob, from JMU Sports Blog; and myself. Make the appropriate follows on Twitter, if you don't already.

1. Over the course of the last three games, we've seen the Dukes get blown out, stage a crazy comeback, and win an improbable Shootout. There's been 60 minutes of pretty mediocre basketball (most of the game in boston, plus the first half vs Hofstra) and 60 minutes of top-level CAA hoops (the spectacular Hofstra comeback, plus hot shooting vs Delaware). So which team is JMU -- the team that can never seem to play up to its potential, or a legit contender in the Colonial?

Stephen Proffitt: The Dukes are a legit contender in the conference. If you had told me, or anyone that at the halfway point in conference play, JMU would be tied for third place **without** Andre Nation, it may be hard to believe. Obviously only time will tell if this reigns true, but I’m starting to buy it. With a handful of home games remaining where they’ve been good and only a few single game road trips left, they’re set up for success. I’ll go out on a limb too following Wednesday’s shootout with Delaware that they’re slowly becoming a second half team too.
JMU Sports Blog: Can we say neither? The truth is it's probably somewhere in the middle. I think we have seen that the team can play up to its potential, the thing that's missing is seeing them do it for a full 40 minutes. Since the time of Andre Nation's exit, we've seen the roster become a bit more cohesive. Ron Curry has made it his team and his teammates are starting to find their own unique roles. We'll still need to see more before we consider the Dukes a legit contender, but for the first time all year we're seeing signs that they could round into form and evolve into a contender before CAA Tourney time.

Carleigh Davis: Without Nation¹s attitude and team membership issues clouding the team,
I think that this JMU squad has the potential to be a legit contender. While they aren't consistent, they obviously have the talent to make some decent plays and work with each other. Cohesiveness and teamwork has been an obvious struggle for this team over the past few years and I think steps are finally being taken towards addressing it. I highly doubt we'll lead W&M by a substantial amount, but I think we could win it. This team has drive that is finally coming through. I don¹t know where it came from, but I hope it stays.

Chase Kiddy: I lean toward the first option of not living up to what they're capable of, but only because of a near-impossible set of circumstances. JMU has some nice pieces this year, and the squad shows improvement every single game. They’re learning, but sometimes I think we forget just how young this team still is.

Look, just throw the Delaware out, because you won’t see JMU throw an 88 up on the board for about 10 more years. It’s just not how they’re built. As for Hofstra, I give Brady and his kids all the credit in the world for playing a stellar defensive half on the road. JMU hasn’t played particularly well outside of the Convocation Center under Brady – even during the CAA championship year, the Delaware alley-oop and beating an awful UNCW team are the only road wins I can remember – so it was refreshing to see them grind out a truly impressive road win. It could signal bright days ahead for the Dukes.

But another way of looking at this JMU team is that they’re middling. They’re 6-0 against teams currently slotted below them in conference play, and 0-3 against the top three teams. JMU hasn’t played Wilmington at all yet, and they’ve got a chance to make a splash today in Harrisonburg vs the Tribe. But until they beat one of the bullies on the block this year and firmly insert themselves into the CAA race, they’re underachieving, at least a tiny bit.

2. JMU is currently 13-9. How would you grade Matt Brady's job this season thus far, and what do you need to see to consider this a successful season?

SP: For me with Brady, the grade comes in the CAA tournament. They need to do well. The regular season counts, but I want to see what they can do with back to back games throughout the course of a weekend. In 2013, everything came to fruition, but then last year we saw yet another one and out. I’ll say they need to get to at least Sunday (semi­finals) this year for me to be impressed.

JMUSB: Despite what the more panic stricken segment of the fanbase says, we actually think Brady's done a good job thus far. Critics might say that he should have jettisoned Nation sooner, but we can't fault the guy for trying to work with a player who was talented but immature. And it says a lot about Brady that he was willing to part ways with the most talented guy on the roster. Brady's substitution patterns still are tough to figure out, but we like the way he's implemented more zone and pressure D. It really seems like he knows that in a one bid league like the CAA is, it's really all about working out the kinks and getting your team to peak in March. He'll be judged by how things go from here on out, but the fact is that despite replacing 3 starters from last year's team (Cooke, Bessick, and Nation) the team has already equaled its CAA win total from last year at the midpoint. That's gotta be good for a solid B grade, no?

CD: This is always the question that gets me in trouble each and every time. If you need a reference, I wrote an article back in October about his lack of discipline and respect from himself and the team he coaches. While one small step has been made in addressing this, I don't believe Brady is where he should be. I will, however, give him the credit he is due. JMU is currently a 13-9 team, which is not a terrible spot to be at the end of January. While I think that Brady's coaching needs consistent critiquing, I think an honest C+ is due here. If Brady can keep his team down this path of success, I might be persuaded to give him a full letter grade raise at the end of the season.

CK: I think a fourth 20-win season for Brady is the best-case scenario right now. More realistically, I'd like to see JMU finish with at least 17-18 wins, along with a first-round win in the CAA tournament. This season was supposed to be the year where 2-3 seasons of building and recruiting finally came together. Instead, Bessick and Cooke transferred, and Nation was removed from the team. Now, it's now about building momentum toward next year and creating some positive CAA tournament experiences that will position the Dukes well for 2015-2016. 

As for the 20 wins mark -- four more wins at home, plus a split of the final four road games against pretty average competition, puts JMU at 19 going into the CAA tournament -- that’s a nice round number that will keep fans excited and aid in recruiting. Maybe most importantly, Brady’s habit of intertwining 20-win seasons into his JMU coaching career gives him some legitimacy as a coach, and keeps the “Fire Brady” crowd at bay. 

(Quick side tangent: in the context of JMU, four 20-win seasons in seven years is highly impressive. You'd have to go back a lot of years to piece together the last four 20-win seasons the program has seen -- there were three consecutive 20-win seasons from 1991-1994. Then, you skip up to the 99-00 season, the last really successful season before Brady's arrival in 2008. So basically, JMU had four 20-win seasons in the 18 years before Brady, and could now have its fourth in seven years under him. Can we give this guy a break?)

As for this season’s grade, I’ll give him a B. Brady should probably be criticized for his overall handling of the Nation situation, but if you’re gonna knock him for how & when he dumped Andre, you’ve definitely got to give him credit for motivating the team to play so well in the wake of losing its most talented player. JMU is one game out of first place at the end of January, with three critical games left to play. Even if it’s unlikely, the Dukes are in position to win now. That’s gotta be good enough, right?

3. Besides Ron Curry, which player is most critical to JMU's success on the court for the remainder of the season?

SP: Yohanny Dalembert hands down. The big man has had a tremendous season thus far averaging 11 points and five boards a game. He’s more patient down low, he’s more aggressive down low and most of all, he’s more mature down low. An offensive outburst in Wednesday’s second half makes me say Yohanny Dalembert is critical to JMU’s success.

JMUSB: Yoyo has the highest ceiling, but Jackson Kent's play might be more critical. At this point, it's probably safe to say that Dalembert is going to consistently score in double figures and pull down 6+ boards most nights. Those sorts of things are obviously important. Jackson Kent has been so up and down however, that his ability to elevate his game consistently might be a bigger factor. Kent is a solid ballplayer with a high basketball IQ. If he can play with confidence and knock down shots from long range, it will open up plenty of opportunities for his teammates. The Dukes need a guy who can carry the scoring load night in and night out with Curry and Yoyo. Kent is best suited to do it.

CD: Jackson Kent. 100%, hands down. He¹s averaging 10.9 points per game, has been a consistent starter for the Dukes, and plays excellently both defensively and offensively. He¹s been a strength in this program for the past two seasons despite the rest of the team facing so much adversity. I think he¹s an under appreciated and under recognized part of this team and I think his consistency will be critical to the remainder of JMU¹s season.

CK: Every time I do one of these collaborations, I ask a “Which player…?” question, and I think to myself that there’s no way people are going to land on my guy. And, every time... well, it seems like we all pick my guy. This time is no different. I thought I had Jackson Kent locked down. No surprise – everyone picked ya boy JK.

Let’s get this out of the way first, because it needs to be said. There are times when Jackson Kent doesn’t wear his frame very maturely, and he looks like a 14-year old trying to ask a girl to Cotillion. I’ve never seen a six-foot kid look so incredibly young. (Maybe I’m just mad about losing my hair.) But Kent is a smart kid who plays good defense and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes on the court. More importantly, his hot hand can pace JMU’s oft score-challenged offense. Even when JMU plays lockdown defense, you’re gonna need someone to carry the load offensively. When Curry is having an off night, or Dalembert is being double-teamed, Kent can be the second scoring option that spaces the floor and gets the Dukes enough points to win.

4. What odds do you give JMU for a Top-2 finish in CAA regular season play?

SP: Damnit, Kiddy. I hate odds questions. I’ll go with 50 percent because that’s a safe bet. I’ve always loved the CAA because it’s never about one team dominating. The convoluted tiebreaker scenarios always persist in to the last weekend of CAA play. With W&M, UNCW, Northeastern and JMU all in contention for the top spot, anything can happen and I’m not sure what I say will make a huge difference. As of right now, the Dukes have matchups with all of these schools beside Northeastern. It’ll come down to games like February 25 in Wilmington to decide this. I do think they can be top­-2 though.

JMUSB: Right now, probably about 35%. And that's just going off the fact that W&M handled the Dukes last time and they still have 2 to play against UNCW. A big win against the Tribe will change everything. And if it's followed up with a win over the Seahawks, things might bump up to the 70-75% range.

CD: JMU has lost to all three of the current leaders of the conference. The team directly behind JMU is Hofstra, and we beat them by a measly six points. I would like to see some more conference wins under the Dukes' belt before drafting a percentage for a top-2 finish. At  this point, I'm thinking around 20%. For once in my four years here, I may or may not believe in this team succeeding.

CK: 10%. I’m not convinced UNC-Wilmington is anything special, but Northeastern and William & Mary are the two best teams in the conference. They’re the ones who will grab the 1-2 finishes, and JMU will have to fight it out with Hofstra and Wilmington for third place.

5. Who ya got today -- The Dukes or the Tribe?

SP: W&M. Selfishly I’ve been waiting all season to watch Marcus Thornton in person. I truly think his ruthlessness from the perimeter will prove too much for the JMU zone defense. On Wednesday, the Dukes did break out of the zone for a while deep into the second half and went to man defense. I think they’ll have to do this to have a chance to control Thornton. I hope everyone remembers that shootout between Thornton and A.J. Davis.

JMUSB: Homer pick alert. We think JMU's foreign born scrappy guys got exposed last time they played the Tribe. Thornton's gonna do what Thornton's gonna do, but we think Vodanovich, Satkus, Cabarkapa, and Lukic will do a better job limiting Prewitt and Tarpey. Big games from Yoyo and Curry, plus some complementary scoring from Kent and JMU escapes with a 65-59 win. Go Dukes!

CD: I¹m going to choose Dukes here. It will by no means be a blowout, but I think we will stay neck-and-neck for most of the game and pull ahead after the under-4 timeout. If by some crazy miracle I¹m wrong and we blow William & Mary out of the water, I give everyone the right to ridicule me for the rest of the season. I might even give Brady a hug. That¹s if and only if there is a blowout. I¹m predicting a final score of JMU 73 W&M 69.

CK: Thornton has absolutely owned JMU over the course of his career. For my money, AJ Davis is the only reason JMU even has any wins vs the College since Thornton's matriculation to Williamsburg. I don’t like it, but I’ll take the Tribe 71-62. Somebody please prove me wrong.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast: The Saddening End to JMU guard Andre Nation

There are some weeks -- like the last two -- where sports just gives us so much goodness, you almost need help digesting it all. A great slate of college basketball, the NFL divisional round, the return of LeBron to the Cavs' starting lineup, JMU football transfer rumors, and the improbable ending to the first FBS college football playoff. I was in the final stages of a write-up on all of those subjects Wednesday morning, with hopes of publishing it at this week's end.

Let that be one of several prologues to the following news, which most of you have probably heard by now: effective immediately, embattled third-year guard Andre Nation has been dismissed from the JMU men's basketball program, effective immediately.

And please note that I said "one of several" prologues. Because, while Nation's sad dismissal should be contrasted against the euphoric revelry many of us have found in the last 14 days of sports, it's not the best place to start telling this story.

It's October 2012, and I've just walked out of a meeting with JMU's then-Sports Information Director Kevin Warner, held in his office on University Boulevard in Harrisonburg. As a sports communication minor, I have to complete a practicum with someone from the athletic department. Because of my background in writing, and my potentially awkward position as Sports Editor with the Breeze, Kevin decides to take an unusual route with my practicum -- instead of staffing live events as a gopher like most of the other students, I'll be writing the pre-game synopses for each individual men's basketball contest. The season wasn't set to start for another couple of weeks, but Kevin recommended I go home and spend a few days familiarizing myself with preseason notes, trends, and player stats. Done.

The first thing I did was go home and firm up my knowledge of the older guys. Devon Moore in particular was a guy I was looking at who -- if he could manage to stay healthy for the duration of the season, which was no guarantee based on his personal history -- could end up rewriting several section of the JMU record books. Then there were guys like A.J. Davis and Rayshawn Goins, who were obviously going to be major contributors. Semenov was already up there for career 3-pointers made. Even guys like Alioune Diouf had interesting tidbits I could potentially whip out and brandish after the odd big game.

But all that was standard fare. What I was really looking forward to was aggregating stats on Matt Brady's young trio of freshman, a mid-major Chimera headed by a brash, six-foot-five-inch guard named Andre Nation, who had been uprooted from his native Plant City, Florida and dropped into the Shenandoah Valley. 

It didn't take long for Nation to start contributing in major, meaningful ways. By early December, he had already notched a CAA Rookie of the Week award. He was averaging 11 points per game, good for second on the team (behind only Goins the grinder). He had posted a stupid stat line in a blowout win over East Tennessee State -- 11 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 blocks, and 2 assists -- which is what spurred his ROTW recognition by the Colonial Athletic Association in the first place. 

Oh, and he was averaging 2.6 steals per game, which led all players in the CAA, and ranked him in the top 30 players nationally. He was must-watch basketball.

By the time Matt Brady was gearing his team up for conference play in January, I had my routine. Kevin would give me a deadline for when to pen him a press release blurb by, and I would get started. But before I would even open a Microsoft Word document, I would check how close Devon Moore was to the all-time assist mark, how many double-doubles Ray had posted, and where Andre ranked nationally in steals. And though his steals fell off as JMU eased off the Radfords of the world and dove into an up-for-grabs-like-never-before CAA season, Andre continued to exasperate Colonial coaches with his defensive prowess in limited floor time, signaling that the future of JMU basketball was as bright as it's been since the 1980s.

When the season edged into March, Andre didn't wilt; he stepped up. He played a combined 65 minutes in the final two CAA tournaments games, scoring 10 points and racking up 4 rebounds, an assist, 2 blocks, and 3 steals vs Northeastern in the championship game. He was arguably more brilliant in the semis against Delaware, where he chipped in 4 boards and 5 blocks alongside another double-digit game.

And speaking of Delaware... let's not forget this.   (Or part II.)

Even though JMU was inevitably blown out by Indiana in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Nation individually played brilliantly, dropping a season-high 24 points on the celebrated Hoosier defense. He finished the season as an all-CAA Rookie. And if the story ended there, I probably wouldn't be writing this post.

Following the departure of Goins, Moore, Davis, and the rest of the oldest team in the history of JMU athletics, Nation went from being an elite guy to bring off the bench to the guy. Watching his brilliance in the NCAA tournament was salivating, but it also bred the burden of expectation that he could carry the Dukes to a place where, at the very least, a CAA title defense was vaguely possible. 

Then, of course, there was the suspension. Nation was dumped for 15 games -- half of a full season! -- for an unspecified "violation of athletic department policy." AD Jeff Bourne and Brady would never fully reveal the specifics of the punishment, but because of the nature and timing of the announcement, it was widely speculated (and eventually sourced) that Andre had failed multiple drug tests for marijuana. 

Of course, if Andre was any other kid, we probably wouldn't be talking about this. Marijuana is so ubiquitous in college towns, it's barely even labelled a drug by anyone within six miles of a quadrangle. So even though I probably saw more kids lighting up a bowl than turning in homework over my five years in Harrisonburg, Andre's probable use of it became national news. 

You can argue over drug reform and whether or not weed should be legalized. You can even argue over whether we, as a society, should be broadcasting the recreational activities of 19-year olds in private apartments and passing it off as sports news. But what you can't argue much is that Andre broke a clear rule, and it hurt his team.

"We're disappointed in Andre's actions," Brady said in a press conference in September 2013. "We hope that he learns a life lesson, that he is part of something greater than himself and is accountable to his team and to the entire JMU community." 

Who knows whether or not he did. Maybe, if Andre's not already the leader of the team as an incumbent sophomore, someone pulls him aside and tells him to get his shit together and fall in line. Maybe if JMU didn't graduate or otherwise lose seven players at the end of the 2013 season, Nation stays in check, with someone to look to for advice and mentorship.

Instead, the spiral had begun.

Nation would be suspended two more times -- once for academic issues just before the 2014 CAA tournament, and once for getting too drunk at a house party in August and reportedly fighting teammate Tom Vodanovich. He was arrested, but maintains to this day that the two were only horseplaying.

Nation returned in late November for a road game at Ohio State, but it didn't matter. The air had become too toxic around him, and his game was suffering. He wasn't completely healthy or conditioned, either. Nation played his final twelve games from November 30, 2014 - January 10, 2015, just seven days ago. He had four blocks over that span and averaged less than 10 points per game.

On Wednesday, Matt Brady announced that Andre would no longer be with the team, garnering mixed reaction from the JMU fan base and Nation himself.

Per Nick Sunderland's article in today's Daily News Record, Nation was surprised by the lack of ominous circumstances around his dismissal. "I thought after the Tom situation, it was over. And he brought me back," Nation told Sunderland. "I just feel like if they was going to get rid of me, they should have did that after that [fight], you know what I mean?"

Sunderland also reports that, according to Andre, he walked out of his final meeting with Brady almost immediately after being told he was kicked off the team.

A lot of people are going to sit here and bury Andre Nation. They aren't without a leg to stand on. By all accounts from people in and around the Men's Basketball program, Andre was not always the easiest guy to be around. He was loud and selfish, and his arrogance, hedonism, and situational unwillingness to be coached eventually cost him his scholarship and position on the team.

Ultimately, Andre was unable to complete the process so many other students struggle with in college: growing up. We all have our flaws. But Andre's had to play out on a basketball court, and without older guys who have been there before, stranded in a valley hundreds of miles from his home, and labeled the de facto leader of a Division 1 basketball team as a teenager, it just didn't play out.

On a different note, it's the final nail in the coffin of what was a mouth-watering recruiting class. With Nation's dismissal and Charles Cooke and Taylor Bessick's transfers to Dayton and Iona, respectively, Ron Curry is the only piece that remains. I've beat the drum pretty hard for Matt Brady throughout his tenure at JMU, but it's not hard to imagine that the mismanagement of his star recruiting class -- Nation's three suspensions, a weirdly timed ejection from the team, and two crippling transfer -- could ultimately spell his undoing, despite three 20-win seasons and the first NCAA apperance since '94. 

As for Nation, he's now in the same boat as so many other 20-somethings. If you want to finish your degree, you better be able to scrape together an ungodly amount of money. According to statistics provided by JMU, it costs the average out-of-state student $38,750 to attend Madison for one year. That figure includes tuition, food, room & board, and other day-to-day necessities.

JMU Men's Basketball will move on without him. One day after the suspension, the Dukes beat Drexel soundly in Philadelphia.

According to one source close to the team, JMU looked "decent" in Philly. Then again, he also added that it wasn't surprising the Dragons lost to a D2 school. So maybe they just sucked a lot more than JMU did. We'll all get a better idea tonight, when JMU hosts Elon. Both schools have identical 10-8 records. The game tips at 8pm.

But I keep coming back to Andre. As a guy who played sports throughout his childhood, I'm stuck on this concept of veteran leadership. Sophomores were never meant to lead college teams. They're not mature enough, and they're not seasoned enough. While I didn't know him particularly well -- despite all those press releases, I doubt he'd be able to pick me out of a crowd -- it seems clear to anyone around the program that Andre had some juvenile issues. By the sound of things he's said publicly since his dismissal, he recognizes those flaws and accepts them for what they are.

But the graduation of key seniors after Andre's freshman year is a critical moment that no one seems to be talking about. It's the difference between growing up as an only child and being deftly guided by an older brother or sister. For young student-athletes, proper mentorship is key.

Andre didn't get that. He had the program thrust at his feet at 19. And for that, this is a story of pity first, personal failure second. And, hopefully, redemption third.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

#BlackOutBridgeforth: Post-Liberty Thoughts on Everett Withers and theNew Era of JMU Football

Bad news: my fandom in sports in a curse.

My ancestral team, West Virginia, shares a complicated relationship with success. It's the FBS program with the most wins all-time... but only out of schools who have never won a National Championship. It's a maddening compromise between unfettered success and sustained irrelevance.

My high school team? Thomas Dale is a historic program in the state of Virginia, but during my tenure there, they were a nobody. I graduated on June 4, 2009, and six months later, they won the 6A State Championship.

Clearly, they were freed of an incredible burden -- my presence. However, as any Physics nerd could tell you, energy can never be created or destroyed; it can only be transferred. (Editor's note: Chase Kiddy knows almost nothing about Physics.)

So on October 10, 2009, during my first game in BFS, it was merely the hand of fate that reached in and knocked the football loose from redshirt freshman Justin Thorpe's hand, as he rushed up the middle on the opponent's 6-yard line with less than a minute to play in regulation. The then-No. 13 Dukes would lose that game, 21-17, and drop to 2-3 on the year.

The opponent? The defending National Champion, No. 1 Richmond Spiders.

You know what happened next... or, more aptly, maybe you don't. One year removed from the National semifinals, JMU would finish the 2009 season out of the FCS polls with a 6-5 ranking, completely irrelevant and wholly forgettable.

A year later, the 2010 Dukes notched a feel-good win over Virginia Tech. That win will always have value as it echoes throughout time, an important parable against scheduling Monday night games -- regardless of who your next opponent is.

But another way to look at that season is that it took an upset of hugely historic proportions for JMU to avoid a losing record on the season. For the second year in a row, the Dukes finished 6-5, out of the Top 25, and way, way out of the playoff picture.

When you take out the Virginia Tech win, the final five years of the Mickey Matthews' era of football is completely defined by heartbreak and missed expectations. Thorpe's fumble comes to my mind, as it was my first big game in Bridgeforth Stadium. But you can't leave out the 2OT Maine game in 2011, the second half vs ODU in 2012, or the inexplicable Stony Brook debacle of 2013. There was the frustration of an offense that switched identity almost at will, sometimes even mid-drive. There was getting beat out for a playoff bid by a directional school in Kentucky. There was the sudden loss of interest by large percentages of the student body. And don't get me started on realignment.

As Matthews slouched away from the program just a few short months ago, his legacy marred by mediocrity, we needed a new era. To paraphrase Patrick Stewart's Professor X  in Days of Future Past, "Please... We need you to hope again."

What JMU got wasn't Everett Withers. What it got was hope.

Withers took a Georgia Tech transfer and a handful of pass rushing pieces and turned them into a team to be reckoned with in FCS football in 2015. JMU, slotted to finish eighth in the CAA this past season, shocked the nation by hanging with Villanova in September, blowing the doors off a good UR squad, and crashing the playoff party, finishing third in what is still the best conference in FCS. (I don't buy this 'Iron sharpens Iron' shit for the Missouri Valley. NDSU is a good team, but the MVC is the beneficiary of the most consistent program on this level, and not the other way around.)

Optimism is running at it's highest in Harrisonburg since September 12, 2010. That's a direct result of the changing of the guard. Credit Bourne and his staff for making the change -- I vividly remember wondering aloud, in a very public forum, if dumping Matthews was the right move. "Coach Matthews deserves the trust of his fan base," I wrote. "I'm not a believer in National Championships buying free rides, but there just isn't enough here to trade Coach Matthews for someone who will only treat JMU as a stepping stone."

Withers may indeed one day forfeit his right to coach JMU's football team and bail for bigger, greener pastures. But for now, the fan base can exhale. Sure, there have been miscues. Withers had his share of Andy Reid-esque blunders, mismanaging timeouts and leaving some points on the board. There's been a fair amount of Monday Morning Quarterbacking, speculation -- particularly after the the Liberty game -- that if we had taken the points here, or gone for it there, or not run Iso in that spot, that JMU might have had an even more memorable season. All that is normal for a freshman head coach. It won't all go away, but it will at least get better with time. Players need reps to get better; coaches are no different. 

Liberty was a hard loss to swallow, particularly because of the haughty nature of their fan base and its geographic proximity to Harrisonburg. But don't for a moment mistake the Flames for a bad team. They beat JMU at the line of scrimmage, they found holes when the Dukes played too soft of a zone, and they went on a behemoth of a drive (11 minutes!) to win the game in the fourth quarter. At the end of the day, one quarter of JMU's best football wasn't better than three quarters of LU's best football. Liberty was a good team playing its best ball at the right time, and I can't wait for the rematch next year. 

And it's been a while since a fan could say that. It's been too long since a fan could look forward, months into the future, and circle a game on their calendar. It's been a while since I've had this much fun tailgating, hanging out with Officer Conley in Upper Convo and downing too much vodka out of the trunk of a friend's car.

I can't wait to see what new wonders the #EverettEffect elicits as we go forward. But mark me down for predicting this much: Record Season Ticket numbers for 2015; an uptick in Donations over the next fiscal year; a top-3 preseason ranking for JMU in the CAA; a Top 25 Recruiting Class after National Signing Day. 

And hope. It's immeasurable, but there's plenty of it to go around.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Consortium IV: Withers, Lee Kick Off New Era of JMU Football at Maryland

Ready for some football? We sure are.

The Consortium posts have generally been reserved for Men's Basketball, but the numbers I've been getting on these posts are astronomically high. Mix in the fact that we had a blast doing it last time, and I decided to get another gang together to talk JMU football.

Our panelists today:

  • Matt Jones, JMU football beat writer for the Daily News Record
  • JMU Sports Blog (check out their own preview here!)
  • Wayne Epps, Sports Editor at JMU's The Breeze
  • Dylan Garner, Sports Producer at the Richmond Times Dispatch
  • Me. Your lonely servant of truth, knowledge, and total bullshit.

1. Everett Withers and the athletic department have promised a new era of JMU football. For a program that's only played a handful of meaningful games since 2008, that means conference title contention and playoff appearances. Yet for all the internal expectations, JMU was slotted for an underwhelming eighth place finish by CAA coaches. So which is it: Brave New World, or Same Old, Same Old?

Matt Jones: Brave New World. Although I didn’t cover the team last year, it sounds like nothing is the same as previous years. Withers is more strict, cracking down on distractions and like you said, ushered in a “New Era” of JMU football. Whether those changes are for the better are still to be determined.

JMU Sports Blog: Brave New World. Or at least it better be. The fact is that as high as JMU football climbed during the Mickey Matthews era, the program had plateaued the past few seasons. There was talent on the roster, but the team consistently under-achieved since the run to the semi-finals in 2008. There's really no excuse for a program with the resources of JMU's to not be a perennial playoff team.

A fresh approach and a break from the past was needed, and Withers brings both those things. He's put his stamp on the program, emphasizing effort and accountability both on and off the field. There might be some growing pains as the new coaches install new systems and new players work their way into the rotation. JMU being slotted to finish near the bottom of the CAA might just be indicative of that. Or it could be some attempt by the voters to over-correct after grossly overrating the Dukes for the past 3-4 years. 

Wayne Epps: Brave New World -- but it's going to take time. JMU obviously has talent right now, but at the same time, you can't necessarily expect guys to grasp new systems on both sides of the ball right away. There's going to be some struggles this season, it's inevitable. But there also will be things to build on, this season will be a good benchmark. Then next season, when JMU will likely have several returning starters back and its first full recruiting class in place, we might be able to start defining this new era. 

Dylan Garner: I believe there are positive things to come for the JMU program, but I’m not expecting Withers to blow up the CAA from the get-go. Outside of the new system, coaches and QB, we have to keep in mind how much they’ve lost. There’s a reason why I see Stephon Robertson’s Dudley trophy every time I enter the Times-Dispatch office. Losing him and other crucial players such as Da’Quan Scott is going to make an impact that will need to be accounted for — regardless who is at the helm. This is undoubtedly longer than a one-year process.

Chase Kiddy: Eh. I’m not sure it’ll be as easy as waving the wand, sending Mickey Matthews to ESPN, and winning national championships. But to be fair, I’m not sure anyone with any sort of credentials or sports savvy is suggesting that.

Long term, I do believe that Withers will be successful at JMU though. The big problem in the post-Landers era of JMU football is that the Dukes have had an identity crisis. I’ve beat on this horse for years, so I won’t enumerate the ways that the offense has sputtered and morphed from series to series over the last five years. With Withers at the helm, it certainly feels like JMU has a much more clearly defined sense of self and toughness – not a fake, on-paper, gangstas-in-the-locker-room toughness, but a real self-discipline that the program may have finally rediscovered.

2. Finish the sentence: If JMU is successful this season, it'll be because of _______________________. 

Matt: Lavaedeay Monlique (Vad) Lee. JMU’s transfer quarterback will be the engine that makes JMU stop or go, and I think that’s a good thing. He’s looked great in the preseason, and he’s got the pedigree (former 3-star recruit) to carry the Dukes if the situation warrants it.

JMUSB: Vad Lee is probably the obvious answer, since he's the man running the Dukes' offense. And it's probably true that the offense will go as far as Lee takes them. You could just as easily say "the defense" though. 

Under Matthews JMU tended to play a "bend but don't break" style of D. When it worked it was great. When it didn't, it was a disaster. Withers and the coaches insist that JMU is going to force the issue, get up in receivers faces, and play a pressing style. If they can do it effectively, JMU could make a run.

Wayne: Consistently strong play up front on both offense and defense. The running game is what is going to make the offense tick. So if the new group of players on the offensive line can provide lanes for Khalid Abdullah, Alden Hill, John Miller, Vad Lee, etc., it'll allow co-offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer to open up the playbook. 

Then Withers said the Dukes' defensive linemen make up the strongest unit on the team. That whole new 3-4 front is going to be interesting to watch. The 6-foot-3, 311-pound Xavier Gates steps in at nose guard, a transfer from Kansas State. And former defensive ends Sage Harold and Ascene Jacques look like they can fit in well as 3-4 outside linebackers. How effective they are in stopping the run and getting off the field will dictate a lot about JMU's overall success. 

Dylan: Vad Lee. ALL EYEZ ON LEE. A successful system based around an ACC-caliber quarterback could seriously be deadly. We know Vad is one talented dude, but he’ll need a nice playbook to complement those skills. A nice mix of both could mean great things.

Chase: Vad Lee seems like the obvious answer, since he’s a former ACC quarterback who has the talent and ability to take JMU back to the days of conference championships and deep playoff runs. But JMU hasn’t ever been talentless. Start naming off all the great talents JMU has had on offense over the years – it’s not a short list. If JMU is going to be successful this season and in seasons to come, it’s because they get the most out of the considerable talent on the roster, and that starts at the top with the coaching staff.

3. What game do you have circled on your calendar this season? 

Matt: Well I don’t have a calendar so nothing is circled, but one game that intrigues me is that Villanova game in Week 4. After Maryland and Lehigh on the road to start the season, JMU returns home for a cupcake game against St. Francis, then immediately returns to the road for a game against the CAA’s preseason No. 2 team. That’ll be a big one.

JMUSB: Hmm, our initial reaction is "not Elon." With all due respect to the Pheonix, we still don't understand the logic of adding a small, private school, with limited football success to the CAA. But that's a conversation for another day. 

We really get excited for all of the traditional CAA match-ups with schools like Delaware, W&M, Nova, and Richmond. Lately, even Towson has become a game to look forward to. Villanova might be the one that jumps out at most though.

It will be the Dukes first CAA match-up and it might be a bit of an indicator of what the season has in store. A big win over one of the preseason favorites, would be a huge confidence boost. And the truth is that as much as we look forward to games against W&M and Richmond, those games won't mean as much if the Dukes stumble in the weeks leading up to them.

Wayne: The Villanova game Sept. 20 really stands out to me. JMU will travel to Philadelphia for its first CAA tilt, likely coming off of an easy home opener win against Saint Francis the week prior. I think this game will be a good first measuring stick for the Dukes. Villanova will be tough, the Wildcats are picked to finish second in the conference. How JMU comes out and plays that weekend will set the tone for the rest of conference play. If the Dukes win, they'll be confident they can win every remaining game on the schedule. If JMU loses, it will have to dig itself out of that hole quickly at home against Delaware Sept. 27. 

Dylan: I think I’ll be interested to watch the teams in most matchups, particularly this weekend’s against Maryland. But I’m most curious to see how the JMU fans will react to this new era. Will there be a renewed sense of support for this team? Even in the non-Homecoming, non-Family Weekend, non-rivalry games? That’s what I’ll be focusing on.

Chase: Plenty of folks are probably going to eye the conference opener with Villanova on September 20, and that makes total sense. Nova was tabbed to finish second in the conference, and games between the Cats and Dogs have traditionally been pretty entertaining. But odds are, with a new coaching staff, new schemes, and mostly new offensive parts running the show, a September game in Philadelphia is a likely loss. There’s too much uncertainty and too much stacked against JMU to reasonably expect a win from that game in the preseason.

Instead, I’m more interested in the Delaware game one week later. When JMU plays its first conference home game, the Dukes are likely to be sporting a 1-3 overall record and spoiling from a shellacking one week earlier. How they play against a rival like Delaware – whether they win convincingly, win marginally, or lose at home – will probably dictate the tone and expectations for the remainder of the season. 

4. Let's move on to this weekend. JMU travels to College Park for the Terps' first game as a Big 10 school, and the first matchup since the Dukes took Maryland to overtime in 2009. What positional matchup between the Dukes and the Turtles ends up being the most critical this Saturday?

Matt: In big I-A/I-AA games, the line of scrimmage is typically the biggest mismatch, but I actually think JMU matches up well there. I’ll go with the Maryland WRs vs. JMU’s secondary. Young JMU DBs struggled last year while Maryland has possibly the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. Yeah, I’d say that’s a mismatch.

JMUSB: The JMU secondary against the Terps receivers. Last year the Dukes pass coverage struggled. It was probably due both to inexperience and scheme (Matthews loved having his guys give 10 yard cushions). Fans were a little harsh on the young defensive backs, particularly Taylor Reynolds, who struggled at times after converting from offense, but also made some big plays. We think he'll improve this year as will the rest of the pass D. 

This Saturday's game might be more of a learning experience than a dominant performance though. Maryland has some speedy and talented receivers, particularly Stefon Diggs. If the Dukes can keep the receivers in check and get to QB CJ Brown, they'll have a chance. If Diggs and the other receivers make big plays early, it could be a long day though. 

Wayne: Maryland's wide receivers against JMU's secondary. It's no secret that Maryland has some dangerous pieces at receiver with the likes of Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Levern Jacobs. Diggs was on pace to lead the group last season with 587 yards and three touchdowns in Maryland's first seven games, before missing the rest of the season with a broken right fibula suffered against Wake Forest October 19.

JMU's struggles in the secondary last year are no secret either. But that group was young and inexperienced last season, especially at cornerback. This year, every starter in the secondary -- Taylor Reynolds, Jeremiah Wilson, Raven Greene and Dean Marlowe -- has previous starting experience. But Maryland's receivers are going to push them hard, the Dukes can't afford to let any of them get free.

Dylan: JMU’s most dedicated tailgaters vs. the Terrapin faithful. I dunno.

Chase: It’s always fun to watch how JMU matches up against ACC schools at the line of scrimmage, but I’m interested to watch how Withers & Co. game-plan for the Terps’ outstanding receiving corps. Steffon Diggs is a human highlight reel capable of busting the big one, which would be scary against the permanent prevent defense we’re all accustomed to seeing JMU trot out on the field by now. It’ll be interesting to watch the JMU defense – which has promised more press coverage this season – try to contain Maryland’s playmakers.

5. Give us your game prediction here.

Matt: 35-10 Maryland. Too much offense from the Terps.

JMUSB: Realistically, I'm going to go with Maryland 34 - JMU 14. (note: this is Rob. I have no clue what Todd thinks. He's usually more optimistic and he'll have our preview & prediction up on the blog tomorrow. I hope I'm wrong and I need to eat crow.)

Wayne: JMU 31 Maryland 28. I think all JMU has to do is keep it close, which could rattle the Terps more and more as the game goes on. Then all it would take is one big play late for JMU to jump into the driver's seat and walk out of College Park with its biggest win since Virginia Tech in 2010.

Dylan: JMU 20 Maryland 31

Chase: Maryland 27, JMU 21. I really do think Maryland’s lack of tape on JMU’s entire team is going to be a huge problem for the Terps. But even I can’t expect a #FeartheFCS upset in Wither’s first game ever as a head coach. Still, I think we’re going to see reasons out of JMU to believe in this game. Just like a near-upset of Maryland inspired reason to believe the Dukes could be special in 2009, I think a close game here leaves the fan base disappointed with what could have been, but ultimately looking forward to a competitive season in the CAA throughout the fall where anything is possible.

6. C4G Crossover Bonus round: who do you give better odds to pull the upset this weekend -- JMU over Maryland, or West Virginia over Alabama?

Matt: JMU over Maryland. Too much of a talent disparity in that Alabama game. Sorry, Chase, you’re going 0-for-2 this weekend.

JMUSB: JMU. Saban doesn't mess around.

Wayne: JMU over Maryland. The Georgia Dome is going to be packed with raucous Alabama fans for West Virginia's matchup with the Crimson Tide. While Alabama is now without some key former starters, including quarterback A.J. McCarron, the No. 2-ranked Tide should have little problem beating a West Virginia team picked to finish eighth out of 10 teams in the Big 12. 

Maryland is much more vulnerable, even at home. The Terps lost four of their last six games last season Again, if JMU can keep it close Saturday, Maryland may be in trouble.

Dylan: It’s a bad thing when JMU has a better chance of upsetting an FBS team than your team has in beating one… but that’s exactly the case here. Sorry.

Chase: Despite the obvious and fair mythos of Saban’s Alabama teams, they’re not unbeatable – particularly early in the season, and particularly early in this season. Even though Alabama has reloaded with four and five-star recruits, the team is young and starting a runningback under center. For a full preview, I’d encourage you to read SmokingMusket’s great breakdown of the game.

With all that being said, the obvious answer here is JMU over Maryland. If the Dukes can limit the number of plays and just hang around all afternoon and into the evening, anything could happen. And shit, anything just might.