HARRISONBURG — Andre Nation’s debut this season started strong and ended poorly, but both he and coach Matt Brady think it will take time for the James Madison University star to get back into basketball shape.
Nation returned to action Tuesday in Madison’s 75-61 loss at College of Charleston, his first game back after being suspended for the first half of the season. JMU in October suspended Nation for 15 games for what sources said was a second failed drug test, severely damaging the Dukes’ hopes for a successful season.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound sophomore guard – who drew national attention during the NCAA Tournament last season – played 30 minutes and scored seven points against Charleston. He shot 3-of-10 and connected on one 3-pointer while grabbing six rebounds to go along with three assists.
“He’s a talented young fella… and I thought it wasn’t as sharp as it could’ve been, but I think that he will be, in time, be back to being sharp,” Brady said by telephone as the team travelled back from Charleston, S.C. “Andre doesn’t have to get 20 points a game to impact the game for us. He did some really good things not scoring the basketball… and he’ll score the ball because he’s got so many ways he can score.”
Nation came off the bench at the 17:13 mark of the first half and immediately made an impact, grabbing two rebounds and sinking a 3-pointer in less than two minutes to help give JMU a 13-11 lead. He then made his next two shots to give him seven early points.
“It felt good to be back,” Nation said. “Fifteen games is a long time, a long time to sit there and watch your team play, especially when it’s something you love to do and you can’t do it. It was a big relief to be back.”
The rest of Nation’s night, however, did not go as planned.
He finished the first half by missing his next four shots while battling calf and quadriceps cramps to go along with a lingering right knee sprain suffered a week and a half ago. Nation said the cramping was the big problem, but he kept it quiet to the coaches and trainers before it became too much to bear.
“It just got worse throughout the game,” Nation said.
Unfortunately for the Dukes (6-10), as Nation’s health deteriorated, so did JMU’s lead. The Dukes tied the game at 49 on an Andrey Semenov 3-pointer with 11:51 remaining before Charleston went on a 12-0 run to secure the victory.
In the second half, Nation played 14 minutes, did not make a field goal and missed both of his free throws.
“I thought he was very good defensively in both halves, and offensively he was much more fluid in the first half,” Brady said. “I think his effort was very good in the game, but offensively he wasn’t quite as fluid… probably tried to do a little too much offensively in the second half when he really didn’t have his legs going.”
Without a true defensive stalwart, the Dukes have relied this season on a swarm of freshmen to pick up the slack on that end. Nation’s return signaled a change in that department.
Multiple times, Brady said, Nation came from the weak side to block or alter Charleston shots. Nation even called himself the “defensive general” for the Dukes, sliding into that role alongside starters Ron Curry, Charles Cooke, Taylor Bessick and Semenov.
“He can eliminate some mistakes with his shot blocking,” Brady said of Nation’s defense. “He’s so explosive around the rim and he’s got such a quick jump, those plays are significant to help us.”
Nation said the last part of his game to come back will be his confidence to speak up and be vocal on the defensive end, as well as his feel for boxing out opponents.
He went as far as giving himself a D+ grade in his first game back with the Dukes.
“That’s just how I grew up and I’m always that way,” Nation said. “Even against Indiana [when he led JMU with a career-high 24 points during the NCAA Tournament] I didn’t give myself an A. It’s all going to come back in time.”
Brady said he and the staff will decide in the coming days whether to start Nation in JMU’s Colonial Athletic Association home opener against Delaware on Saturday (4 p.m.) or bring him off the bench again.
“He’s physically fit, but I think the emotion of the game, and especially the emotion of his return after half a season… there was a tremendous atmosphere to the game itself,” Brady said. “I thought that he played really well given all the circumstances, but I don’t think it’ll take many games to get him back to where he needs to be. He’s certainly a smart basketball player and he understands how we’re trying to play, and those aren’t the issues. It’s just getting him used to it; I don’t think it’ll take very long at all.”