HARRISONBURG — Matt Brady’s heart tells him that basketball should be like jazz. But the James Madison coach’s head realized that, to win in the Colonial Athletic Association, his team would need to more closely represent classical music.
So this past season, Brady traded some syncopation for a more regimented approach, one that helped his team to an unexpected CAA title.
“Personally, I think the game should be more free-flowing and faster,” Brady said about a month after his Dukes finished a season in which they won their first league championship since 1994.
“The game was meant to be free-flowing and artistic. But as college coaches, one thing that’s easily coachable is that you can grind a game down. When you grind it down, it’s not nearly as artistic. … My teams have always preferred to play a faster style of play, but I came into a league where everyone wants to score in the 50s.”
In Brady’s nine years as a head coach (four at Marist and five at Madison), his teams never scored fewer than the 65.2 points this season’s Dukes averaged. That worked because opponents scored only 64.6 points a game, the fewest allowed by any Brady team.
The defensive-minded Dukes were far from visually stimulating in their halfcourt offense, but they executed just well enough to pull out plenty of tight games. Typically that execution was the result of four-year starting point guard Devon Moore making a play off the dribble late in the shot clock.
Next year — with Moore and the team’s other two leading scorers, fellow seniors A.J. Davis and Rayshawn Goins, gone — what will the Dukes’ offense look like?
“That’s an on-going dialogue with my staff,” Brady said. “I guess the question is, ‘Who do you want to look like?’ When we get to the summer, and we eyeball these [incoming freshmen’s] individual skills, we’ll be able to figure it out. That’s the challenge moving forward — not how to defend, but how to fit these pieces together.”
Five New Freshmen
The Dukes will incorporate half a roster’s worth of new bodies next year, and while they’ll be less athletic, they might be more skill-based than last year’s group.
In addition to five incoming freshmen (all of whom JMU coaches have praised for their basketball smarts, if not athleticism) and the addition of redshirt freshman forward Dimitrije Cabarkapa, the Dukes will essentially add a top scorer in 6-7 forward Andrey Semenov, who played just 137 minutes last season due to injuries and was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA in April.
What does this mean for JMU’s offense?
“I think we’ll have less [play]calls,” assistant coach Mike Deane said. “We had a lot of offensive schemes, and then at the end we ran quick hitters, and a lot of them were for Devon to get to the basket. We don’t have a guy like Devon that’s that good at getting by and challenging guys. So I think we need a more integrated concept with the group. But I think we’ll have guys who move much better without the basketball, guys that will take advantage of receiving a screen and opportunities to set a screen.”
Deane has coached at 10 schools and was a head coach at five of them, leading three to NCAA Tournament berths. In his nearly 40 years on sidelines, he’s overseen just about every style of team. He’s not one to pigeonhole a roster into a scheme, preferring to tailor a strategy around his personnel.
“What’s the exact right scheme for all these guys? I couldn’t put a finger on it right now, but I think about it every day,” Deane said. “I walk around for an hour and that’s the type of thing I think about.”
Like this past year, every player on JMU’s roster will be 6-foot-4 or taller. While the Dukes won’t have a big man they can continually feed in the post, their guards are capable of posting up smaller defenders, and their forwards are capable of playing out to the perimeter and stretching out their opponents.
The focal points will likely be rising sophomores Andre Nation (6-5) and Charles Cooke (6-6), who both had impressive showings in the NCAA Tournament and figure to build on strong freshman campaigns.
“I know our guard-play, as far as me and Andre, it’s going to be more of a post-up,” Cooke said. “For me, it’s going to be half-and-half. Fifty percent I’m going to try to get down low in the paint. … In the CAA, there really isn’t a lot of guards who are long as me and Dre are or as tall as me and Dre are. So, I mean, it really gives us an advantage down in the paint, make moves for other players.”
Less athleticism next season won’t necessarily mean a slower pace.
Cooke, who averaged 5.8 points per game last year, said he envisions the team will be more up-tempo next season. Cooke, Nation (9.3 ppg) and rising sophomore point guard Ron Curry (5.7 ppg) are all capable of leading a fast break. Often the most effective way to score in transition is when the man collecting the defensive rebound starts the break, without having to make an outlet pass. So if someone other than Curry grabs a board, that player might have the freedom to initiate the offense.
While defense will be the cornerstone of any success — and the Dukes still plan to deploy full-court pressure — Brady would like to get back to the type of offense he enjoys coaching and watching.
“I think, offensively, I’d like to be a team that can get away from running a lot of sets,” he said.
Teams like the Miami Heat have helped spark a revolution of positionless basketball in the NBA, where coaches are no longer so hung up on using a standard lineup that features a classic point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. Obviously, much of the Heat’s success centers on the fact that they boast the best basketball player in the world — LeBron James — as well as two of the next best 20 in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
How does this relate to the college game, and more specifically, to JMU?
The Dukes have a roster full of players with diverse skill-sets and adequate size. They could certainly test a positionless approach, where the five guys on the court aren’t glued to such specific roles.
When a reporter bounced the Miami Heat design off Deane, the veteran coach said a variation of that sort of thinking is possible for the Dukes.
“I could see an offensive scheme with five guys, and all five guys know [each position]” Deane said. “It wouldn’t be a complicated thing. … First guy down goes to the block — no matter who it is. The next guys fill in the right corner, left corner and the last guy fills the trail spot. Not always the center to the low block on the ball side, four-guy to the trail spot.”
Deane also mentioned a possibility of the flex, “which is an equal-opportunity offense. The ball moves, and you screen and cut.”
It’s all speculation for now, because the Dukes’ newcomers are still somewhat of a mystery. But with the expansion of summer practice rules (as of last year, coaches are now allowed two hours per week with each player), JMU will soon begin to shape the style of music they’ll play in 2013-14.
“That’s a critical part of building this program,” Brady said, “is finally building continuity moving forward; then we can have some sort of offensive identity.”