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. 



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dear Diary: Easy, Breezey, Beautiful People

I sat down one afternoon in early April, 2013 to put to paper my own personal feelings on a life-changing year at The Breeze, JMU's hugely successful and mega-award-winning school newspaper . Those thoughts were never published. One year later, with increased perspective on both my time in college and my potential career path moving forward, I reveal those thoughts here.


If players play and coaches coach, then I suppose it must be true that writers need to write. And so it is with a heavy heart that I will attempt to put into words the life I have lived for the past year.

Yesterday was my last day as sports editor with JMU's The Breeze, a publication which many of you know by now that I have become intimately intertwined with. I have lost track of the number of times over the last year I've texted a dear friend something along the lines of "I can't, tonight. I have budget."

Most people don't seem to understand the time commitment my job requires. After all, it's just a student newspaper, right?

But the Breeze is so much more than that. It's a dysfunctional family of narcissists and humble-pie eating, nose-to-the-ground workaholics. There are straight-edged kids and drug-addicts; country boys and city slickers; bombasts and pencil-pushers; those committed to relationships and those committed only to getting as sloppy as possible on any given Saturday. And though we are all extraordinarily different, like any family, we are bonded through a common thread: A love and devotion to a cause, much older than any of ourselves, that is equal parts startlingly relevant and dangerously archaic.





Tucked away in a sacred corner of the Breeze opinion page is a throwback to JMU's namesake president. "To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression." -James Madison, 1800.

Inside of every journalist is a fire that burns continuously, a fire which can never be rained on, snuffed, or otherwise put out. It's a burn, a yearning to uncover and present the crux of a given situation, be it the search for a new president or the dismissal of a pre-med student from the football team. It's a mindset that can't stand harsh injustices or even simple unfairness, and anything that lies in between. It's a fire that drives writers and editors alike to push through and fuels real journalists through the lean or unpleasant times.

I witness all that and more, on a daily basis, in my peers. I can feel the heat radiate from behind their eyes as they gear up to write that big story. I see passion in every move, behind every word. Agree or disagree, it's something that I sometimes overlooked or forgot to have the utmost respect for. It's pure. It's beautiful. And it's a student newspaper.

Somewhere between this student-run newspaper and, say, a CNN newsroom, things seem to go haywire. I won't speak for every professional journalist, but it feels like for every real, honest, and devoted writer out there, there could be 100 more that are corrupt, biased, lazy, uncommitted, dull, or just plain incompetent. They aren't interested in the purism that seems to burn, still brightly, in the young, unyielding faces that I spend my every day with.

And for a year, for one brief, painstaking, troubling, loud, frustrating year, that was my glorious privilege to experience.





Of course, all the things I just said about my coworkers do not apply to me. It took a remarkably short time as an editor (and, proportionally, a remarkably large amount of red ink, fired at me from the acrimonious tip of one Torie Foster's pen) to discover that this bout with journalism would be met with only mixed success. You see, journalism is accompanied by a set of guidelines that must be followed without exception. That's counter-intuitive to me. Rules are meant to be broken, if only for the sake of rhetorical asymmetry.

And so I part ways with my AP Style guide. I can't say that I will miss it. For a young writer with so much to say, it truly did hold me back, I can say with 100% certainty. In fact, if you're a Breezer reading this, you're probably already pulling your hair out over the serial commas and undoubtedly popping some blood vessels over other stylistic things I prefer. I love run-on sentences. I won't apologize.

What I will miss, without question, are the people. There are very few people I've ever met that I've considered to be family, but each and every member of the Breeze means something particularly special to me. Farewell Columns will simply never allow enough space for me to wax on as I'd like to.



I won't be seeking out a job in any sort of traditional journalism field, of that I can all but assure you. My talents and interests lie far too unilaterally opposed to the narrow processes that constrain my writing, but don't mistake my disinterest for disrespect. This is merely two entities realizing they can't be right for each other and recognizing their irreconcilable differences. I'm not meant for journalism, and journalism was never quite meant for me. Of this, I feel confident.

I'm not certain what my future holds. I've got a lot of wild, hair-brained schemes -- plans to build media giants, plans to write books. I don't know how much of it is really possible; I'm not sure if any of it is possible. But even as I part ways from my fellow journalists now, I hope they realize that our goals are, and always have been, perfectly aligned.

We all want to change the world, one truth at a time.

My path is just a little less proper.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Quick CAA Tourney Predictions

If you follow my stuff on CAAhoops.com, then you saw my CAA tournament preview  earlier this week. I stand by the notion that the CAA needs it's best teams -- for my money: Towson, William & Mary, and Delaware, in that order -- to win this weekend and represent in the NCAA tournament. A Sweet 16 run and 17,000 replays of Marcus Thornton draining a half-court buzzer-beater brings a significant amount of credibility back to the League. Which is nice, since so much of it walked out the door with VCU and George Mason.

All that being said, it's tournament time, and what's "best" rarely happens. So let's predict the future, shall we?


Quarterfinals:


Delaware 77, Hofstra 74

This is an interesting matchup from a momentum standpoint. Delaware is the top seed, but they're not exactly trending up at the right time. Meanwhile, Hofstra is the lowest seed after disposing of a pretty awful Wilmington team last night. Hofstra is playing their second game in 18 hours, which is a pretty obvious difference-maker. But don't be surprised if the Pride keep this closer than you thought they would. They're luke-warm right now.



Drexel 52, Northeastern 50

Excuse me if I can't get excited for this uber-sexy matchup between half-broken teams. I love Frantz Massenat's game, and I enjoy watching Bruiser Flint coach. Aside from that, this will be a game that's probably pretty hard to watch.



Towson 65, JMU 61 (OT)

Towson is the best team in the CAA and my pick to win this tournament. Let me make that clear before I jump down the what-if JMU rabbit hole.

Now, on to wishful thinking. The only thing that keeps this game is close is the un-suspension of Andre Nation, whose defensive abilities and big-play potential force Towson to rely on Benimon for offense. If Nation can come up with a handful of big plays, Semenov can get start connecting from downtown, and Cooke can be the streaky scorer he was early in the season... if all that happens, and JMU limits turnovers, they have a chance. But that's a lot of what-ifs, and I have way too much faith in the things that Towson does well to put my stock in JMU. But hold on for the 2014-2015 season, kids. It's gonna be fun.



College of William & Mary 71, College of Charleston 59

If this wasn't Charleston's first year in the league, I'd seriously consider picking them in the upset here. In the two games these guys played this year, the Tribe won the first because they shot over 50% from behind the arc. In the second game, in Charleston, the Tribe shot 13% from behind the arc. If this third match-up turns out to be somewhere right in the middle of those two numbers -- say, 33% -- then I like Charleston. They have a clear advantage in the rebounding department, and if they can avoid cheap fouls, could crash the glass and keep Rusthoven frustrated inside. He's more of a finesse, shoot-the-11-footer, do-it-all big guy than a grinder like Benimon, anyway.

But I wonder if the moment might be too big for Charleston here. Far away from home, in an arena they've never played in, in the first year of a new conference tournament, without a go-to guy, playing in the nightcap. And I don't believe they can avoid cheap fouls, either. So I'm going with no-he-did-not-just-hit-another-three Marcus Thornton and the Tribe. There's not too many Virginia schools left to cheer for anyway.


Semifinals


Drexel 60, Delaware 59

We know Drexel can beat Delaware. It's already happened once this year. And I just have a gut feeling that the Hens aren't going to show up this year in Baltimore. Drexel's forwards dominate UD, and Drexel moves onto the championship round, where they probably don't have enough left in the tank to muster a final win.



Towson 74, William & Mary 67

Even if the Tribe manage to outlast Charleston, they're going to be beat up inside. That's not exactly the state you want to be if you have to face the nation's leading Double-Double producer. Benimon has a monster game, completely outshines Rusthoven, and the pseudo-home-team Tigers survive a fiendish late-game rally from Marcus Thornton, who walks off the court satisfied knowing that he is all but certain to be the 2014 CAA Preseason Player of the Year.


Championship Matchup: Towson vs Drexel

Towson dominates Drexel in front of a sold-out crowd. Jerrelle Benimon scores 18 points and pulls down 12 rebounds for his 22nd double-double. Towson takes the championship, two years removed from being the worst team in college basketball, and looks primed for an unsuspecting Sweet 16 run.



Towson 68, Drexel 52

Friday, February 14, 2014

Virginia is for [Blind] Bracketologists

It's mid-February guys. Snowstorm or no snowstorm, we're closing in on March Madness. College basketball teams have 4-6 games left on their schedules before conference tournaments start, so I'm here with some appropriately timed, but most likely poorly executed attempts at Bracketology. After all, we all know I love me some Old Dominion State basketball (not to be confused with loving the current state of ODU basketball, which I do not give half of a shit about).

Analysis will come next week, but for now, here's the game: below are the unnamed NCAA resumes of 13 DMV* schools. Identify as many schools as you can, and leave comments as to who you think is who-- because, during this time of year, nothing is more American than proving you know more about college basketball than your friends.


*Virginia as defined by Brad Nessler.


Team #1
    Record: 14-10
    RPI/BPI Average: 258
    Non-conference SOS: 344
    Record vs RPI top 50: 0-1
    Record vs RPI top 100: 1-0

Team #2
    Record: 9-15
    RPI/BPI Average: 143
    Non-conference SOS: 51
    Record vs RPI top 50: 1-7
    Record vs RPI top 100: 2-10

Team #3
    Record: 16-9
    RPI/BPI Average: 148
    Non-conference SOS: 235
    Record vs RPI top 50: 0-3
    Record vs RPI top 100: 0-6


Team #4
    Record: 15-9
    RPI/BPI Average: 58
    Non-conference SOS: 23
    Record vs RPI top 50: 3-5
    Record vs RPI top 100: 5-7

Team #5
    Record: 16-8
    RPI/BPI Average: 54
    Non-conference SOS: 35
    Record vs RPI top 50: 2-5
    Record vs RPI top 100: 6-8

Team #6
    Record: 15-10
    RPI/BPI Average: 56
    Non-conference SOS: 47
    Record vs RPI top 50: 3-8
    Record vs RPI top 100: 4-8

Team #7
    Record: 20-5
    RPI/BPI Average: 17
    Non-conference SOS: 
32
    Record vs RPI top 50: 3-4
    Record vs RPI top 100: 9-5

Team #8
    Record: 20-5
    RPI/BPI Average: 23
    Non-conference SOS: 75
    Record vs RPI top 50: 3-2
    Record vs RPI top 100: 6-4

Team #9
    Record: 14-11
    RPI/BPI Average: 66
    Non-conference SOS: 49
    Record vs RPI top 50: 0-7
    Record vs RPI top 100: 2-11


Team #10
    Record: 9-17
    RPI/BPI Average: 238
    Non-conference SOS: 172
    Record vs RPI top 50: 0-2
    Record vs RPI top 100: 0-5


Team #11
    Record: 19-5
    RPI/BPI Average: 32
    Non-conference SOS: 94
    Record vs RPI top 50: 2-2
    Record vs RPI top 100: 7-5


Team #12
    Record: 8-15
    RPI/BPI Average: 198
    Non-conference SOS: 103
    Record vs RPI top 50: 0-5
    Record vs RPI top 100: 1-9

Team #13
    Record: 15-8
    RPI/BPI Average: 133
    Non-conference SOS: 195
    Record vs RPI top 50: 0-2
    Record vs RPI top 100: 0-5



Hint: The list is comprised of 3 current CAA teams, 3 former CAA teams, 3 ACC teams and 4 "other" teams.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Consortium III: Andre Nation Returns as JMU Dives into CAA Play

New Year, New College Basketball season... New Consortium.

Last year, I put together a few well-written friends & colleagues of mine from various media outlets to talk about the state of JMU basketball. It was a popular segment, so here we are again for the third installation.

Currently, the Dukes are three games below .500. Despite the subpar record, the Dukes are 1-0 in Colonial Athletic Association play, and they have the opportunity to improve to 2-0 tonight when they play at the College of Charleston. CAA newcomer Charleston has the rather unenviable task of containing a young JMU sophomore guard who'll be playing in his first game of the season after being suspended for the first 15. His name is Andre Nation. Maybe you've heard of him.

That's the landscape thus far. Now, for today's bloggers.

This year, the consortium returns with some new and exciting names. We lead off, as we often do, with Breeze men's basketball beat writer and WXJM Sports Director Stephen Proffitt. Read his excellent work in the Breeze every Monday or Thursday, or find him on Twitter @JStheProffitt. Additionally, his sister followed me last night. I consider this to be newsworthy information.

Second on the panel are the esteemed members of JMU Sports Blog (@JMUsportsblog). If you don't know who Rob and Todd are, what are you even doing here? Read their stuff religiously at jmusportsblog.com. Or, you know, continue to live in the dark ages. It's your call.

In the coveted third spot we have George Nicholls, acting moderator and editor-in-chief of CAAhoops. George has been instrumental to the success of CAAhoops since Michael Litos' departure from the site a little over a year ago. You can find George and his writers (which, don't forget, includes me!) @CAAhoops.

Batting cleanup is James Irwin (@irwinjj), noted JMU graduate and author of the book Midnight in Chatanooga: The game, the team, and the dream behind the rise of JMU football. You remember that Kindle you got for Christmas? I think you know where I'm going with this.

And, of course, I am merely Chase Kiddy. Alright, let's get to it.



1. After grinding out a 60-55 road win in Wilmington at Saturday night, JMU has officially completed half of its regular season with a 6-9 record. How would you grade the first half of the Dukes' season?

Stephen: C+. I find this as a neutral grade, with the + being the optimism I have for conference play and the return of Andre Nation Tuesday night (#jan7). Matt Brady had never lost more than five games in a row at JMU until this season when the Dukes lost six straight. The team is extremely young, but it's a work in progress, as usual. A long-term investment. But that's not a bad thing. The backcourt is averaging in double figures (Ron Curry, 11.9, Charles Cooke, 15.7). Cooke has scored 20 plus points in five games this season. He's really heating up, netting 24 against UNCW Saturday night. Brady has done well with what he's had so far with some minor glitches and another strange Andrey Semenov injury in November. I'll finish by saying who needs grades anyway, at least that's what I tell my home at the end of each semester...

JMUSB: C+. We weren't expecting JMU to light the world on fire given all of the senior leadership they were forced to replace. And things were made even more difficult once Nation was suspended. Even with those hurdles to overcome and the fact that the Dukes are the second youngest team in the country, the early season schedule wasn't so challenging that .500 ball should have been out of the question. After a really rough patch where nobody other than Charles Cooke could buy a bucket, JMU has righted the ship somewhat. Cooke has the makings of an All CAA type player and Curry has shown glimpses of real scoring potential (prior to his 0-for performance in Wilmington at least). It's tough to tell what Brady has in the freshman, but we're optimistic and think Jackson Kent could develop into a legit player. A winning record and at least one of the freshmen showing star potential would have been an "A" performance. We think C+ is pretty fair based on actual events.

George: I'd give them a B-. Honestly, before Nation got suspended I was expecting the record to look something like this. Considering that the team has seven freshmen, that Semenov, Cooke and Curry are all shooting below 30% from three, and that 13 of the first 15 games were played on the road/at neutral sites, I'm okay with where they are.

James: C+. At times, it's been real painful watching this team try to score points. They've dropped a few games in real disappointing fashion (missing 19 free throws in a four-point home loss to Detroit and getting blown out of the gym by a mediocre Valparasio team being two of them). The Dukes completely flat-lined in the second half against UNC-Greensboro, and that's a really bad loss when you consider only four of UNC-G's seven wins are against Division I teams. Andrey Semenov (44% from 3-point range the last three seasons) has really struggled from distance. But Charles Cooke has been terrific, and the Dukes are playing pretty well defensively. They don't look like a team defending a title right now, but they haven't gone into the tank either.

Chase: B-. If you've read these before, you know I'm always the apologist of the group. That being said, it seems unfair not to grade this particular JMU team against realistic expectations. This team basically went on a tour of the lower 48 states over the last two months. More freshmen on the roster than home games on the schedule. Like, way more. Semenov has been up and down, Nation has been riding the pine (metaphorically speaking; I'm pretty sure he's not even allowed to sit on the bench), and still this team shows major signs of life. A 6-9 record is far from lighting the world on fire, but the Dukes are improving, learning from their mistakes, and trending upward at the right moment. For now, that seems to be enough to offset at least some of the bad stuff, like getting embarassed at Valpo, exposed at UVA, and dropping shoulda-coulda-woulda games to Detroit and Sam Houston State.



2. Let's get to what everyone wants to talk about. Tonight's game in Charleston marks game #16 for the Dukes, which means the return of Andre Nation. How much of a difference-maker is Nation once he's back on the court?

SP:  #jan7 ::insert purple devil emoji:: The most interesting person in all of my social media is back. He's the most athletic player on the team, and arguably the best all around player. I'm a little worried about how much he will try do to in order to make up for his absence. Brady has said he will need to accept the role he's given. He doesn't want Nation coming in and trying to run the show after being suspended for the first half. It may take a game or two, maybe three but he will mesh back in. Curry/Nation/Cooke has the potential to be extremely dangerous. They showed last year that if they can run, they can sacrifice getting beat on the glass and in the paint night after night. I think the flow and I hate to say it, but swagger will be there with Nation on the court. While we were assigned to asses the analytics of on-court performance, Nation's personality off the court is complex, and needs to be mentioned. He's loud, he wears his emotions on his sleeves. This can hurt JMU, but more times than not, it brings positivity and confidence to a young basketball team. I'm optimistic and very excited.

JMUSB: Hopefully a huge difference. Thus far, we've seen Brady rely on the zone defense a lot. It's been better during the recent hot streak, but there were times when it wasn't very effective. Everyone seems to be focused on what Nation will bring to the table offensively, but he's one of the top on-the-ball defenders in the CAA. His return should give Brady the freedom to mix up defensive looks and rely less on the zone.

On offense, Nation's athleticism and pure scoring ability should open things up for everyone. Charles Cooke has emerged as the go-to guy in Andre's absence. That will probably continue for the first few games after Nation's return. Once Andre gets back into the swing of things, we expect it to more of a dual-threat type attack where both guys lead the offense together. Both guys are good enough that defenses have to adjust to stop them. If the other guys, particularly Semenov, Kent, and Curry, can exploit opportunities when Andre and Charles draw extra defenders, there should be plenty of easy buckets for the Dukes.

GN: I expect that Nation’s impact will be substantial. He’ll provide Brady (I assume Brady’s reluctance to recruit another point guard is a vote of confidence for Nation) with another guard to bring the ball up the floor. His basketball IQ and defensive prowess give him a pretty high floor, and his ability to attack the rim should create better looks from the perimeter.

Best-case scenario, he makes good on his promising end to last season, and joins Cooke as one of the offense’s two primary options. At worst, he becomes the fourth option on offense, and his defense helps the Dukes create an extra transition bucket each game. We’ll probably see something in the middle, and he should be a consistent double-digit scorer. People worry that he’ll try to do too much, but he’s not a selfish player. It’s important to remember that Nation had a prep year before college, so he’s not your average sophomore. If the offense we saw in the NCAA Tournament is a sign of things to come, his impact will be massive.

JI: Nation's suspension put the Dukes into triage before the season even started, leaving them with very little firepower on offense. Cooke has been dragging this group to the halfway point with his hot shooting. Nation adds a needed offensive weapon, he's a great on-ball defender, and he's probably the most athletic guy on the floor. In chess, this would be like losing your queen before the game started, and then being allowed to put it back on the board at the halfway point. Remember, Nation was suspended, not injured, so he should be ready to go physically. His return makes JMU a much deeper team, though there may be an adjustment period as Matt Brady works him back into the rotation.

CK: Nation is a completely different type of player than Devon Moore, but right now, the thing that makes them so similar is Nation's ability to tie together all of the other assets JMU has. Nation's basketball IQ, his physical abilities, and his balance as a scorer demands respect from the other team's defense. At times, that might demand double teams. But even when it doesn't, Nation's game opens up Semenov for the corner and wing 3-attempts he wants to take so badly. It opens up pockets in the elbow for Bessick and Vodanovich. It opens up some more room for Cooke and even Curry to cut to the basket. And on defense, it provides a hard anchor for JMU to work around that they might not have had before. I expect we're about to see a pretty significant jump in most of JMU's defensive metrics.

3. Besides Nation, who is the most important player on the team going forward through conference play?

SP: Ron Curry. In brief, I say this because of consistency. After UVA, talking to him, he was pumped to be 'the point guard.' He wasn't playing behind Devon Moore any longer. The offense was his to run. In the second game of the season at NIU, he went off for 19 points. That's a "hey I'm pretty good at this whole PG thing." I was extremely impressed, although I was subjected to just the audio for the game (like 3/4 of this season). Aren't we spoiled in this era? But I digress. 16 points here, 8 there, 23 here, 7 there. At an 11.9 average, I would like to see him find better offensive consistency, which I think he will. Cooke has found his groove and I believe Curry is very close to being there. Ron Curry is the key to this team's consistency and rhythm.

JMUSB: Lots of people will point to Ron Curry and talk about how crucial his development at the point will be. That's definitely true. The firmer he grasps the offense, the better off the Dukes will be. And Cooke and Semenov will definitely be relied on to help carry the scoring load. We're going to throw a slight curve ball though and say Taylor Bessick is the most important player on the team in CAA play. The Dukes are going to see stronger players in the paint in CAA play, than they did in the non-conference schedule. Bessick needs to be able to pull down boards, play strong defense, and stay out of foul trouble so he can play deep into games. And if he could simply finish more of the easy looks he so often gets, that'd be great too.

GN: When I read this I was so eager to say Ron Curry. The 33-point shellacking at Valpo sways me to believe that Curry might have the most important role on the team, but Nation’s return could prevent him from posting the gaudy numbers we’ve seen lately. If JMU’s going to sneak into the CAA’s top-tier, Andrey Semenov has to come alive. In eight CAA games from February 2012, Semenov average 4+ three-pointers per game on a scintillating 57.8% from behind the arc. He’s simply too good of a shooter to only hit 29.5% from downtown (as he is this season). I expect Semenov to keep firing away, and believe he’ll start connecting more frequently.

JI: I'd like to give you three guys, not just one. But I'll play by the rules. It's Taylor Bessick (Tom Vodanovich and Ivan Lukic were the other two guys). JMU's five best players are Ron Curry, Nation, Semenov, Cooke and Bessick, and they'd ideally be playing 25-35 minutes each. That lineup is big and physical around the perimeter, but fairly undersized inside. If Bessick can hold his own on the blocks, he allows JMU to play with this smaller, faster, more athletic lineup and create mismatch hell for other teams. Remember the CAA title game? It was JMU's physical size outside that overwhelmed Northeastern's offense in the first half.

CK: On paper, it's probably Taylor Bessick. I love his tools, and I'm a big fan of his potential. Unfortunately, I think his physical game is a little bit ahead of his mental game. When you watch him play, he's still young and a little bit raw emotionally; he can't shake his own mistakes off very easily yet. That's why you see him get in foul trouble so often. One silly foul early on turns into another one 30 seconds later. If I had a dollar for every time I've seen Brady have to adjust his game plan mid-game because Bessick has 2-3 fouls by halftime, I could finance the new Convocation Center myself.

So with Bessick still coming along and the forward position being handled by committee, I'm going with Ron Curry. JMU's three-guard set of Cooke, Nation and Curry is almost definitely going to be the starting rotation for the remainder of the year. Nation's return takes the pressure off Curry to be a scorer, so we're likely to see more of Curry, the distributor, instead of Curry, the reluctant scorer. How he develops as a dime-guy and ball handler-- particularly for late in the season, when JMU will see more of the dreaded press, which it has never fared well against-- could ultimately spell how successful this team is in the postseason.

4. What's the ceiling for this team?

SP:  In the nine-team CAA, the ceiling for JMU is another trip to the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid in Baltimore come March. I don't see how anyone could really say otherwise and I'll confidently say that I knew they could win that tournament last year given the circumstances. I even predicted it on my blog. That is the beauty of conference tournaments with automatic bids. The CAA will most likely be a one-bid league so teams will be quite 'crabby' in Baltimore, but JMU has proven it can do the deed and slay the dragon. While young, the Dukes could find themselves back in the big dance yet again. I endorse this message as crazy as it may sound.

JMUSB: Can we say, getting hot and stealing the tourney in Baltimore? Because that would be our best guess. Based on what we've seen thus far, this doesn't have the makings of a team that is going to contend for the regular season title. They don't strike us as consistent enough and they haven't shot particularly well from the outside. But the CAA preseason favorites don't seem to be as good as advertised. And Charles Cooke seems to be way better than advertised. This team will have at least a puncher's chance against every team in the CAA. They're capable of beating every team in the league. Unfortunately, they also look capable of losing to any team in the league.

GN: Do I think the Dukes have the talent to rattle off three in a row and win another CAA Championship? I do. But more than half of the players on the roster are freshmen, and I’m worried about their interior defense against the Barus, Benimons, and Beasthovens of the CAA. I just think they’ll be hard-pressed to do more than spring an upset (maybe two) in the conference tournament. JMU will probably be matched up with a higher-seeded opponent in Saturday’s quarterfinals. If I told you before the season that the Dukes would lose in Sunday’s semifinals, you probably wouldn’t complain.

JI: The ceiling is a defense of their CAA title, and probably a 15 or 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Dukes lack size inside, but if Bessick, Vodanovich and Lukic can provide quality minutes, JMU is a dangerous team. They want to go small because they'll take the physical play of their guards (Curry, Cooke and Nation) over any other group of guards in the CAA. That also means Semenov can stay outside, in that tweener 3-4 role he prefers. He's 6-foot-7, which means his best looks at the basket are when he's away from the hoop being guarded by smaller defenders.

CK:  An exact replica of last season. JMU has too many bad losses at this point, and the CAA is way too watered down, to get anything other than a 16 seed as a potential NCAA team. The best we can hope as fans is a nice regular season finish, a CAA tournament championship, and a shallow First Four win preceding a bad loss to a No. 1 seed. The big stuff comes next year, when the freshmen are sophomores, the sophomores are juniors, and the schedule is designed for success from the very first game. This has been a long-term investment from the beginning.



5. For now, JMU owns a one-game advantage over the rest of the CAA. When the dust settles in March, will JMU finish the regular season in the top third, middle third, or bottom third of the conference?

SP:  I'll go with the middle third. I'll say they finish fifth. They have a very challenging three week stretch beginning January 15. Home and home's with Northeastern and William & Mary as well as Charleston at home and Towson on the road. These are six really challenging games that could make or break the season. Win four, they're solid. Win three, ok. Win two, I'd be a little worried. While it's speculation, the good teams (NE, Drexel, WM, Towson) will rise to the top. I think JMU will come in right behind them if all runs smoothly in ole' Rocktown.

JMUSB: Middle third. And that wouldn't be too bad all things considered. Lots of people, most notably Andre Nation, took great offense to JMU being picked to finish 7th in the CAA. That might be a little harsh, but it's not really a sign of disrespect. To the contrary, it might be a sign of how much respect the powers that be respected JMU's seniors from last year, particularly A.J. Davis and Devon Moore. We expect the Towson Tigers to right the ship now that CAA play is starting. Jerrelle Benimon alone makes it almost impossible that they won't. And both Drexel and Delaware have depth and experience that will make them tough outs. Throw in Marcus Thornton and the Tribe and you've got a bunch of tough teams battling for the top third. It might be slightly optimistic, but we still see JMU finishing somewhere in that second tier of teams in the middle third.

GN: What I love about a nine-team conference and a 16-game schedule is that everyone gets to play twice. The Dukes already stole one on the road at Trask, and I think they'll have a chance to get maybe one or two others on the road. More often than not, I think they'll defend home-court, where they really seem to get the fast-break offense going.

The last four games on the schedule – home versus UNCW, Drexel, and Towson before ending the regular season at Hofstra – present an interesting mix of bottom-feeders and contenders, and a huge opportunity to build momentum down the stretch. I expect the standings to be a jumbled mess, kind of like the race for the AFC’s final playoff spot (where one team finishes a game up on four others). They might be kind of like William & Mary last season, which means they’d head to Baltimore as a dangerously enigmatic team. Ultimately, I see them finishing in the middle third of the league (around 7-9 in the conference).

JI: Middle third. JMU finally gets some home games (they had two in the first 15 games of the season), but they better win now against Northeastern, William & Mary and Charleston. Starting Feb. 4, JMU begins a three-week stretch in which it plays Drexel, Delaware and Towson in five of seven games. How the Dukes fare against those three teams likely determines whether the Dukes are a CAA title contender. They're probably heading for anywhere from eight to 10 conference wins, which would put them right around .500 overall when the conference tournament opens in March.

CK: I'm envisioning a third or fourth-place finish. That's almost certainly optimistic... but then again, maybe it's not. The problem with JMU usually isn't lack of talent, but lack of performing (see also: shooting, foul line). Last year, the Dukes won at home whenever it suited them, but couldn't seem to beat Grandview Nursing Home on the road. If JMU can just mange to be a .500 team on the road in conference play, this is a team that can sneak into the top 3 regular season teams. Easier said than done, sure. But we'll get another great chance to see if they can beat less-talented teams on the road Tuesday night in Charleston.