Monday, November 16, 2015

Rumors of their Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Some Thoughts on WVU vs JMU, and more

Don't you just love that mid-November sports saturation? That mythical weekend where Friday basketball flows into Saturday college football? And then there's NFL Sunday? And then on Monday, there's... more basketball?

November has historically been one of my favorite sports months for all of the obvious reasons. And there's been so much shit going on lately that I had to put down my legal pad and pen, set aside my storyboards, and poke my head out of my self-imposed sports sabbatical. I mean, have you heard some of the shit you cretins spout out of your face-holes when I'm not writing on this blog? Good grief.

It's time to fall back in line, hooligans.

JMU Football:

I'd like to start with this, because... WHAT?

Seriously? Who started this? Because this is why we can't have nice things.

Lobbying to fire a head coach after he loses two games to ranked opponents, even when it's in a defensively atrocious fashion, is why players and media types laugh at fans. Etymologically, they might be the same, but a fan and a fanatic have two completely separate connotations. Don't be a fanatic. Don't be an asshole. Be a hard-nosed, passionate, still-sensible fan.

Right. On to the Dukes. Look, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm pretty sure I've sold my stock in "JMU, the National Title Contender." My good friend Taylor Mickelberry, proud Double-Duke and current Illinois resident, was oh-so-happy to inform me back in early October that he had already bought tickets to Frisco. Taylor, as I sometimes tell his girlfriend, is a lunatic.

So save your money. Don't buy train tickets to Texas for January, even if you're thinking that the Valley gets a tid bit nippley after New Years. Don't hold your breath. Don't light candles after church. JMU is not winning it all without Lee. Etch it in stone. It's done.

But it doesn't mean that the program isn't on the upswing. Everett Withers made the playoffs in Year 1. He's still got a very real shot at the program's first playoff win since 2011. He's all but locked up the first set of consecutive playoff appearances since 07-08. But even at 9-2, I'm not convinced JMU can back into a playoff seed without some miraculous help from around the nation. So let's focus on what is going to become a theme for this blog post: obtainable goals.

JMU needs to beat Villanova, lobby for a home playoff matchup, and win a post-season game in Harrisonburg for the first time in seven years.

If the Dukes can accomplish those three things, they'll have dialed the clocks back to 2008. The season will have been an unmitigated success. And from there... can't anything happen?

WVU Football: 

As October was wrapping up, you'd be excused if you had no idea what West Virginia's record was, or whether or not they were any good. They were 3-4, including an 0-4 October performance in Big 12 play, and hadn't won a game since scalping a dreadful Maryland squad back in September by a score of 45-6.

What was the Mountaineers' October slate of games? @Oklahoma. Vs Oklahoma State. @Baylor. @TCU.

So, yeah, they went 0-4. Three road games against Top 15 teams, plus a home matchup with what could potentially be the Big 12-winning Cowboys. That OSU game, by the way, ended up going to overtime. Was I in Morgantown that day? Of course I was . THE CURSE OF MY FANHOOD. IT'S REAL.

By the time the blowout in Waco went final, Mountaineer fans were done. Fire Dana! Buy out Rich Rod! Bring in someone that can win three road games, each one 2,000 miles away, in four weeks! What are we doing?

Isn't it time to check our expectations at the door? West Virginia fans have had a few years now to adjust to the Big 12, and if one thing is clear, it's that the Wild Wild West is definitely not the Mild Mild (Big) East. Some years, even with a great defense and a strong running game, West Virginia just won't have the tools to win the title. Living in reality isn't lowering your expectations -- it's being a responsible fan.

And yes, West Virginia does have a solid defense and a strong running game. Even without All-American Karl Joseph -- who I still think get's drafted before Day 3 despite the season-ending injury, by the way -- the Mountaineer D has looked like one of the best units this program has fielded in my lifetime. Meanwhile, Smallwood is climbing draft boards, and the offense is averaging 225 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 18th in FBS football. It also ranks as the No. 1 reason West Virginia nearly doubled up Texas over the weekend, 38-20. Did you ever think you'd see the day where a Holgorsen-coached quarterback only threw the ball 12 times?

West Virginia (5-4) closes its regular season schedule with home games against Kansas and Iowa State, along with a road tilt in the Little Apple with Kansas State. I'm inclined to make the argument that these are the three worst teams in the conference. So pitch your fuss if you'd like, but after all the October wining, the Mountaineers are positioned to have a shot at a 9-4 season. With the team's best player gone and an average quarterback under center, that's nothing to sneeze at.

Men's Basketball: JMU vs West Virginia (Monday, 7:00pm @Charleston Civic Center)

JMU fans will probably point to the fact that this is hardly a neutral site, being in Charleston. West Virginia fans would probably argue back, noting that setting the game a stone's throw from Huntington would make it Marshall territory more than anything else. More importantly, the Civic Center hasn't exactly been a bastion of great basketball for the Mountaineers over the years -- a number of foul-laden rock fights with the aforementioned Thundering Herd come to mind.

So, hey, JMU fans. Listen. I'm in your corner here. The Dukes went to Richmond and beat the hated Spiders, and that feels like a big, emotional win. And it is! It's even true that there's more than just emotion behind the win; there's some solid numbers to back up how great JMU played. We could start with the fact that, even without its best post player, Madison smacked Richmond on the boards.

That's great. Really! It's early, but I'm thinking JMU could contend for a conference title, and maybe even a sneaky NCAA upset this year. This squad ticks all the boxes -- inside-out play, a strong ball handler (Curry), a grindy post-player (Dalembert), and a dangerous X-factor (take your pick -- Brown, Kent, Cabarkapa). I believe it could be a special year.

So please also believe me when I tell you that West Virginia is going to obliterate JMU tonight.

This whole #PressVirginia thing? It's not a joke. They're going to be so far inside Curry's personal space, they might walk off the court with intimate knowledge of his love life and ATM balance. With Dalembert out, West Virginia is going to smash the boards so hard, I expect players to be picking glass out of their skin during the post-game press conference. Do you see what I'm getting at here? It's not going to be pretty.

It's just not a good matchup, folks. West Virginia has a big frontcourt, and they foul a lot during their press. JMU does not handle a press well, does not shoot well from the stripe, and is missing its best frontcourt player. Sometimes, it's that simple.

Best of luck to both teams tonight. My only rooting interest is that both teams end the game still healthy.

And if you insist on being that guy? The guy who makes me choose a team? Well, I guess you've got some reading to do.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Value of Struggle: On My Friend, Alison Parker

It’s 6:58pm on a Thursday night, and we are, very literally, a couple of minutes away from an hour-long budget meeting. Fifteen of us are uneasily rocking back and forth in our rolling chairs in the bleakly dank basement of Anthony-Seeger Hall, just a few feet back from South Main Street in Harrisonburg, Virginia. As college journalists, this is our proud, outdated home, where we gather four times a week for not enough money and not enough recognition. Our budget meeting – a biweekly gathering to discuss the litany of section stories the editorial staff has lined up – is going way longer than usual. On this particular evening, you can chalk that up to Torie, our editor-in-chief, who is eviscerating our story ideas, one after another, like neatly lined paper lambs to the slaughter. Torie’s just doing her job – the more scrutiny a story idea undergoes, the better it’s likely to turn out, of course – but that hard reality doesn’t make this particular night any less agonizing.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

10 Things: The 14-day College Football Countdown (PS, I'm Writing a Book!)

We've hit the 14-day countdown mark for college football season, which means it's time for me to start wordsmithing some sports news and analysis once again. I'm pumped, and I hope you guys are too. But first, some news of my own to share.

As many of you know, I've had my hand in various projects over the last three years. From contributions to the new Massanutten Magazine to winning Regional Sports Columnist of the Year for my work with the Breeze, I'm extremely proud of how the last four years have played out. I've devoted a tonnage of hours to writing and developing important thoughts about not just sports, but larger, headier topics that I feel are important for us to poke and prod at. I like to tell myself that I've elevated the level of discourse around me, even if it's only by one tenth of 1 percent, and I'm so thankful for the loyalty that many of you have shown me as readers.

With all that being said, I haven't devoted time, brainpower, or other resources to any project ever like I have my upcoming book. Many of you have heard me make reference to it, or even seen me drop a mysterious acronym -- DCC -- from time to time. And today, I'm ready to announce, to at least you lot, the title and scope of that project.

It's called Drunk_Couch_Confessions, and you can find my own little marketing project over at I've got another blog of my own over there, and... well, suffice it to say that it's nothing like this one. Throughout the coming weeks, you'll find short stories, news briefs, some creative non-fiction prose, and, eventually, excerpts from the book itself.

What's the book about? Well, it's influences are all over the place, ranging from Rachel Carson to Dave Barry to Stephen Colbert to Hunter S. Thompson. It's an anthology of people, places, and events I encountered from 2009-2015 during my time at JMU. In some ways, it's similar to Tucker Max's cult hit, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. But there's a lot more substance here than you might think, so, quite literally, don't judge a book by its cover. There will be stories of keg-tapping and team-fapping aplenty, but at its core, it's a collection of investigations. Why do 18-year olds go to college? What is there to gain, besides learning how to write research papers and memorizing the phylogenic tree? What are the differences between the Millennial generation and Generation X? And why is it all so god-damn expensive?

I might not have all the answers to these questions, but I do plan on being the one who asks them in the most intriguing and engaging format. That's what I've been working on over the last three years. And I hope you'll continue to be a part of that.

Okay, enough of that. Let's talk college football.

1. If  it's true you've got to start each season with the National Champion, then we'd better start with Ohio State. You can read all of the analysis you want of the Buckeyes, but their season boils down to a November 21 date with Michigan State. Since Virginia Tech doesn't have the offense to match OSU regardless of Buckeye suspensions, and the Harbaugh-led Wolverines are probably a year or two away from being threatening, can Michigan State spoil what is probably an otherwise perfect season?

I don't know. I try to avoid major predictions on big games until I've at least seen some of the season, but it's bound to be a gritty game that won't be decided until late in the second half. And the Buckeyes had better pray they pull it out, because the Big 10 is shallower than a baby pool this year. One misstep against any team during the regular season, and it'll be curtains for Meyer's repeat performance.

2. How about the conferences who have a virtually guaranteed spot in the second playoff? The Pac-12 and SEC champions would have to get completely mauled to miss out on a bid. Instead, the hottest debate this off-season has been which conference has the toughest subdivision in college football. The SEC West has been loaded in previous years, though for my money, never quite as loaded as you think. This year, it'll feature a great Auburn team, a better-than-most Alabama team, and... Arkansas? The Mississippi schools are overrated -- Ole Miss might as well trot a 1960s AFL offense out on the field -- and LSU hasn't been a Top 10 team in a few years now. All these defenses are wildly susceptible to Spread offenses, which is why I'll stake my cash on the Pac-12 South this year. USC should compete for a playoff spot, with Arizona, UCLA, Stanford, Utah, and maybe even Arizona State vying for a national ranking.

3. Speaking of the Pac-12 South, check out this video of West Virginia anti-hero and current Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez canceling practice. I guess you could say they were happy about the day off. (And while we're talking about Arizona, shout-out to friend of the blog Kenzie Kleespies, who just transferred from JMU to play Volleyball for the Wildcats.)

4. Who's going to replace Mike Schikman as the play-by-play man for JMU? That's been the most frequently asked question about JMU athletics over the past year. (Well, other than you-know-what.)

Well, I was scrolling through my Facebook News yesterday, and good ole Curt Dudley had linked to this new page on JMU Athletics. Debate answered. Welcome to the team, Dave Thomas! Great nomination from Lord Jeffrey Bourne.

5. James Madison is no stranger to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory these past few years, so it's hard to say this with a straight face, but... Could JMU really be 7-0 coming into a homecoming matchup with the Richmond Ticks? After the annual opening salvo of cupcakes, Madison draws FBS Southern Methodist in Texas on September 26. JMU hasn't won an FBS game since 21-16, but SMU has a first-year head coach. And what's that, you say? Why do they have a first-year head coach? Because SMU was a god-awful football team last year, and they played so poorly that pretty much their whole staff got fired.

The Dukes will line up for SMU's fourth match of the season. The Mustangs will be sporting a minimum of two losses, because they play Big 12 favorites Baylor and TCU in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively. So who's in between in Week 2? The Mustangs -- currently ranked 113 of 128 in ESPN's Football Power Index Rankings -- draw North Texas on September 12. The outcome of that game could hint at JMU's odds at winning down on the plains.

6. I know I trashed the Big 10 earlier, but I'm not sure the ACC has much of a margin for error for this playoff system, either. It's fairly easy to make the argument that Florida State got into the inaugural CFP playoff last year thanks to its momentum from 2013. With the core of that Seminoles team departed for the NFL, they're unlikely to carry the same favor. And Clemson? They've always been good under Dabo, but never quite good enough to take seriously. If Ohio State loses and the ACC is flat, who's getting in? One or the other? Two Big 12 teams? I honestly don't know. But because it's grounded in reality with real consequences, the Big 10 vs ACC elimination concept is a much more interesting debate than trying to parse conference subdivisions.

7. Earlier this month, Clemson football players signed off of Twitter yet again for the 5-month college football season, camp to bowl game. This has been happening for years now at Clemson, and they're not even the only school that does this. I'm torn on how I should feel about this. On the one hand, college athletes consistently show bad judgement on social media, broadcasting thoughts or engaging in arguments that are damaging to their own reputation as well as their schools. From a coach's perspective, I totally get how this is a blessing for your program. It's a big chunk of bullshit that you won't have to deal with.

On the other hand... shouldn't student-athletes eschew blanket bans in favor of learning how to temper one's actions or deal with every-day adult distractions?

8. Does Jimbo Fisher get enough respect? An interesting piece on cites anonymous opinions from peer coaches who give their candid thoughts on him. He's an elite recruiter with a couple conference championships and a National Title on his resume, and that's only over the last five years. I can't name five better coaches than him right now. So why does it feel like he's undervalued as a commodity?

9. It's interesting to think about how the Commonwealth Cup might get someone fired this year. UVA-Tech doesn't exactly bubble to the surface as a top-tier rivalry in the overall world of college athletics, but it's certainly still taken very seriously here in Virginia, despite the hard times both programs have fallen on. Mike London fielded a good defense last season, but the offense was abysmal. I'm not dialed into the UVA program like I probably should be, but I have to imagine he's on an ever-warming seat.

On the other hand, Frank Beamer's squad in Blacksburg has been on a steady decline for a few years now. If Tech cedes the Cup to the Cavaliers this year, I think Beamer's own pattern of dominance over his archrival could spell his own doom.

10. West Virginia was picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12 pack this year, and you know what? I get it. Major departures in the wide receiver core, along with a couple of key offensive linemen, have left this team without its star power for 2015. But for the first time in several years, West Virginia might have a legit defense to rely on. The leading man in Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson's club is Karl Joseph, who will probably be an All-American this year. Check out his Junior Hits compilation, and also this personal favorite, appropriately called "Karl Joseph Kills a man in Texas." I get sore just watching some of this stuff.

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.