Entering the 2012-13 season, James Madison boasted the most fifth-year seniors in the country. The Dukes were eager to test the conventional wisdom that seniors and experience won championships. Playing their best basketball heading into March, the group of seniors meshed with a group of talented freshmen to earn the program’s first Colonial Athletic Association championship since 1994 and first NCAA win since 1983.
Fast forward a few months and all but one veteran has moved on, leaving behind the second-youngest team in the country and the youngest in program history by average eligibility class. A team that proved that seniors win in March will now look to prove that a green squad can overcome more experienced teams.
“I think even a novice would admit that this is a young team,” offered sixth-year head coach Matt Brady after picking up his first conference title in nine years as a head coach. “A latent college basketball fan would look at our roster and say, ‘where’s the experience and where’s the scoring and where’s the rebounding?’ We obviously lost a lot with last year’s seniors so I’m not terribly concerned with expectations. …Like all my teams, I don’t put us in a box or put a glass ceiling on this team because I do think we are talented and if we can stay healthy I think there’s a lot of guys that can play.”
There can be a tendency for fans or media to place higher expectations upon a team that has achieved, regardless of its composition the next year. While he identifies no burden for the Dukes to feel a need to defend their championship, Brady also sees no reason for fans and pundits to immediately discount his sixth Madison team.
“I still think that every season you have a new team, even if your personnel doesn’t change or changes very little. I think every year everyone starts at the same place and it comes down to playing good basketball, improving as the year goes on, staying healthy and the ball bouncing well fortuitously for your team.”
Several factors were key for the Dukes to make a progression a year ago. The nucleus of seniors and freshmen boasted high athleticism and enthusiasm. JMU emphasized defense as effectively as it had in 30 years. The team featured length with the tallest team in program history and interchangeable parts on defense to allow for more switching and avoiding mismatches.
Those nuances will continue for the 2013-14 season with a slightly taller team, sixth-tallest in the country in fact, and a six-member recruiting class that mostly ranges from 6’7 to 6’8 in height. While the Dukes aren’t necessarily imposingly tall, they are tall across the board with nine players between 6’7 and 6’10.
“We want to get guys that can go to multiple positions so we can switch a lot of things defensively and create an advantage there. It’s a fine line between guys that are long and may be be able to guard two or three different positions and not keep quicker guys in front of you. I think this group has got the ability to switch a lot of screens and still keep the ball in front of them defensively and keep the ball out of the lane off dribble penetration. That’s the challenge when we decide to go with really long guys at every position.”
In addition to the youth and height, one other attribute stands out when studying the 2013-14 James Madison roster. The Dukes boast six players with hometowns listed from countries other than the United States. Prior to players on the current roster, JMU had just seven foreign players in the entire program history. Brady noted that the non-US players were not sought directly due to their nationality but rather because they fit the profile of the next iteration of JMU men’s basketball.
“They’re all good players. They’re all different but the one common theme that each of these freshmen have, foreign or not, is they’re all very competitive. That was the common denominator that we were looking for in every player that we wanted to bring in with this class. We wanted to be ultra-competitive and unselfish. That’s not to say that they don’t want to all play a lot of minutes, or some won’t want to start, or it will take some time before some of these guys will understand their roll, but I do think that those two things are common amongst these freshmen, which is being highly competitive and being very unselfish as players. As we went out looking for tall, long guys it was apparent that we feel very strongly that we go the right guys.”
No one could be blamed for writing off the 2012-13 season early when the Dukes limped to a 1-5 start. However, Madison got senior Andrey Semenov back from an early injury and started to put some pieces together. A run of home games ignited a stretch of six wins in seven games, highlighted by an overtime loss to a solid Richmond squad, a quality neutral-court win over San Diego and a win in the CAA opener against Old Dominion.
The Dukes followed that 6-1 stretch with four road losses and two home wins in the next six games but then showed their first glimpse of making an impact with four straight CAA wins in late January. A road win over Delaware, a home win over Towson and a tough road loss at regular-season champion Northeastern proved that the Dukes could compete in the CAA.
Perhaps most in JMU’s favor was the emergence of senior guard A.J. Davis. Inconsistent for much of the season, Davis broke through with 27 points to spark the Dukes to a home win over William and Mary in early February. He went on to reach 20 points in six of the next 10 games, including a season-high 36 in the regular season finale against the Tribe.
Playing as the No. 3 seed, JMU dispatched of W&M again in the CAA Tournament followed by a close win over Delaware to reach the title game for the first time since 1997. The Dukes stormed out to a commanding 40-18 lead at the half and weathered a frantic comeback attempt to defeat the regular-season champ, Northeastern, and earn the program’s first title since 1994.
Davis earned Most Outstanding Player honors with 62 points in three games and was joined on the All-Tournament Team by senior teammates Devon Moore and Rayshawn Goins.
The Dukes were strapped with a No. 16 seed and sent to Dayton, Ohio to the NCAA First Four. There they pulled away for the team’s first NCAA victory in 30 years to top LIU Brooklyn before ultimately bowing to top-seeded Indiana.
For Brady, the season was a culmination of five eventful years in Harrisonburg and a proud moment. “I was thrilled for our team, especially for our seniors. I was really proud of the seniors for persevering and staying the course. I say this all the time but I think the other part of it is, this is a university that has great pride in everything we do and obviously the alumni are eager to see JMU rise back to the top of this league and stay there. I do feel like we’re getting closer to where we can do that. This has been a long arduous road with too many pot holes, but I do feel like as a staff and as a program we’re where we need to be now to sustain success, which I think is sometimes much more difficult than achieving success one time or for one season.”
Longstanding supporters of the program will have one familiar face to connect with this season. With the rare possibility of accumulating on-court time in six different seasons, Andrey Semenov will close out a collegiate career that has coincided with Coach Brady’s six-year stay in Harrisonburg.
Semenov figured to be a key piece to JMU’s senior-laden squad a year ago before being injured at Old Dominion in early January and missing the rest of the season. The versatile, pick-and-pop forward averaged 11 points in his six completely healthy games and ranks among the program’s all-time leaders in three-point accuracy.
Still, not unlike his previous five years with the program, Semenov’s 2013-14 campaign will again be defined by his health. Brady said, “If he’s healthy and he plays the way he can play, he can really help us. But I think Andrey is a young guy that has great self-belief. He’s got very strong opinions; we need him to be part of this group. We don’t need him to be the leading anything, we need him to be a part and if he’s willing to do that then he will be a significant piece.”
The only other player on the roster higher than a sophomore is junior guard Christian Pierce, who missed the entire season while recovering from an injury. Brady noted,“Christian has been an absolute joy to have in the program, a guy that got hurt last year and I promised him that if he outplays people he will be given the opportunity to play. He had a good summer and he came back with a great mindset and I think he’s been a terrific teammate and a great practice player.”
Much of the burden for developing this team and future teams will fall upon the shoulders of the four-member sophomore class. They burst on the scene as the perfect complement to the senior class last year. Now, despite their relative youth, they will be key figures in determining both the success of the 2013-14 team and the sustainable program success moving forward.
“I do trust these sophomores. I think they’re very talented, but emotionally are they going to be where last year’s group went, how they became very determined to win. If we hit adversity, who’s going to lead us out of some difficult days. I do think that’s going to be a factor with this group and that’s why this sophomore class has got to grow up quickly and hopefully if Andrey Semenov can stay healthy he can help us in that regard too.”
Ron Curry returns to his natural position as point guard following a year playing off the ball alongside Devon Moore. Curry averaged 5.7 points with 61 assists as a freshman but will have the ball put in his hands almost exclusively to lead the team.
“I think that Ron is going to be given a great opportunity here to lead this team and this program as the starting point guard. He needs to be consistent with his approaches to the game every day, his practice habits and really fighting through any adversity that he has with his own game or his own production. We recognize that he’s still a young player, he’s going to have a prominent role on this team but he needs to be emotionally strong to endure any ups and downs that he might have himself.”
Charles Cooke averaged 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds last year but really emerged in the NCAA Tournament, including a season high of 18 points against Indiana. By all accounts, Cooke carried that positive momentum into summer preparation.
“Charles probably had the best summer of anybody. I think he’s gotten significantly stronger, I think he’s worked on his game, he’s probably put as much time into his game every day as anybody I’ve had in this program since I’ve been here. I would think that he’s going to be a very prominent player. Some other guys get more publicity but he’s got a chance to make as significant a jump as anybody from year one to year two as I’ve coached at JMU.”
JMU will be without versatile sophomore Andre Nation after he was suspended for half the season in September. Nation averaged 9.3 points and 3.1 rebounds last year to earn CAA All-Rookie honors. His well-rounded contributions included 53 assists, 47 blocks and 52 steals. Like Cooke, Nation closed his season in high style with a career-best 24 points in the Indiana loss.
Another late-emerging guy was forward Taylor Bessick, who should have even further-expanded opportunities to contribute in the post. He averaged 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds. Brady said, “Many young players believe that their individual value is directly related to points and nothing can be further than the truth with regards to our starting center. We need our front court to rebound and run to set screens and to finish plays. We don’t need to throw any one guy the ball and say ‘go score.’ We don’t need Taylor to think that he needs to score to be valuable to this teams’ progress, growth and season.”
The six returning players will be joined by eight newcomers in all with one being redshirted player Dimitrije Cabarkapa. Brady had comments on each of his new difference makers:
· “While Dimitrije’s improved, he still has a great ways to go. He and Taylor are similar in that regard. They both identify their self-value with scoring. But a good basketball player is not necessarily a scorer. A good basketball player is someone that understands how to win and all the intangibles that go into knowing how to win.”
· “Jackson Kent is a very unique player. He’s a 6’7 guy that plays a couple of different positions. We recruited him to be a point guard and he’s going to be given the opportunity to be a point guard. I think he’s got a very high basketball I.Q. He’s a very skillful player, and he’s a very unselfish player.”
· “Our players feel like Paulius Satkus is as good of a defensive player as we have to match up against every single day. He’s sneakily athletic and a young guy that we think has got a great aptitude for the game. He plays the right way and does not see the value of basketball as just scoring. He completely understands it has many parts to it.”
· “Ivan Lukic we think is a gifted scorer with a surprising knack for keeping smaller players in front of him defensively. He has a smooth-looking shot and is better at driving the ball with both hands to the basket than his teammates expected. He certainly has shown that he’s much further along than most people thought.”
· “Tom Rivard was a completely unheralded player out of New England that we thought had all the intangibles. He’s demonstrated all of that in the short time that he’s been here. He’s an eager learner and a very studious player. He’s a tremendous student and he’s that way as a player. He’s been easy to coach and easy to deal with. He’s a terrific teammate.”
· “Yohanny Dalembert is a physically tough and very active forward and I think he’s going to play a couple different positions in his time here at JMU. What we need him to do most immediately for this team is to be kind of a lunch pail guy. Every team has them and he’s clearly got the ability to be that person. He’s going to be given a great opportunity as a freshman to play a lot of minutes. As long as he embraces that role he’s going to be the guy we can rely on quite heavily.”
· “Tom Vodanovich’s shooting stroke has improved remarkably since the time we’ve had him in individual workouts. He’s similar to Lukic in terms of playing multiple positions and scoring the ball. Tom is going to be able to guard fours easily, which is what we were recruiting him to do, but he might be able to guard a three and a five. He’s that tough of a guy. . He’s got a really good knack for scoring the ball in the low post because he’s so tough. He’s been playing against older players his whole life. He’s got more basketball experience than a typical freshman.”
The schedule lines up rather uniquely for the Dukes in that it offers just two non-conference home games for a season total of 10 compared to 20 games on the slate either on the road or at neutral venues. It will match the fewest home games in program history while just three Division I programs will play fewer home games this season.
“Obviously there’s challenges abound with our non-conference schedule, mostly because of all of the road games,” stated Brady. “We feel very strongly that we have got to figure out a way to win the two non-conference home games. We play Richmond and Virginia and Valparaiso on the road. Greensboro is going to be improved. Winthrop’s going to be remarkably improved. High Point is a difficult game with two of the top players in the league and with a returning front court. There’s no easy games. The neutral games are games that we feel strongly we have to figure out a way to win. I think it’s a really challenging schedule given how young we are and the fact that there’s no home games. For an experienced team to play nothing but road games non-conference is a challenge. This team is going to have to figure out how to win road games early so that we don’t hit long stretches of adverse play.”
Three major changes occurred in the CAA. Longtime conference mates George Mason and Old Dominion along with more recent member Georgia State departed for three different leagues. Charleston joined the league as a new member with Elon slated to do so next year. The final change for the league is the venue change for the championship tournament from the Richmond Coliseum to the Baltimore Arena.