Dukes Battling For Better Seed

Next Up For Well-Rested JMU: Towson

Posted: February 25, 2014

HARRISONBURG – Unlike many college basketball coaches, Matt Brady isn’t afraid to cop to it: He scoreboard watches all the time.

“I spend a couple hours every night doing it nationally,” James Madison’s sixth-year coach said Monday. “I’ll look at box scores until I fall asleep.”

With the Dukes (11-17 overall, 6-8 in the Colonial Athletic Association) currently enjoying a rare week-long stretch in between conference games, Brady got some more good news in the interim.

Since Madison’s 63-61 overtime win over Drexel last Wednesday at the Convocation Center, the three other teams vying with JMU for a coveted top-five seed at next month’s Colonial tournament – Drexel, College of Charleston and Northeastern – have gone a combined 1-3 in league games.

That leaves the Dukes in a fifth-place tie with Charleston (14-15, 6-8), just one game back of the fourth-place Dragons (15-12, 7-7), entering the final week of the CAA’s regular season.

And Northeastern (9-20, 6-9) and Charleston each have remaining games against Drexel.

Seeds 6-9 will face more difficult competition in the quarterfinals — hence the desire to finish in the top five.

“I’m not concerned about momentum as much as I am [with] just trying to get our wind back,” Brady said. “These young kids don’t know what a college season is like for the most part. Even our sophomores that are so integral to our team — they weren’t counted on for 35 minutes per game last year — even they hit a little bit of a wall.”

Brady gave his players off days last Thursday and Sunday in the wake of sophomore point guard Ron Curry’s game-winning 3-pointer against the Dragons. Some players, such as sophomore Charles Cooke and freshman Yohanny Dalembert, still went to the gym Sunday to put up shots, while others, like freshman forward Tom Vodanovich, used the free time to get over some lingering aches.

“We wouldn’t have wanted the day off if we didn’t get that one,” Vodanovich said of the Drexel game. “Definitely, that one made it oh so much sweeter.”

That rest figures to come in handy when Madison hosts second-place Towson (20-9, 11-3) Wednesday night. Perhaps the hottest team in the league, the hard-charging Tigers ended Delaware’s unbeaten start to the conference season last week and have won 13 of their past 16 games.

“Everybody deals with that one week [off] in this league at some point,” Brady said. “For us, I think it’s good. I think it helped us recharge our batteries. We gave ’em a weekend day off, which we haven’t had off for a long time. And I think, more than anything else, it lets our guys catch their breath because this is the stretch run.

“It’ll be four practice days we’ve had to get ready for Towson. We’re certainly tweaking some things to get ready, so I think four practice days before our final home game, I look at it as a benefit.”

The Tigers, meanwhile, will be playing their third road game in six days but have plenty of motivation with a possible share of the league title with Delaware and the No. 1 conference tournament seed still within grasp.

“They’re physically as talented as anybody,” Brady said, “and defensively they may be the best team in this league.”

The most gifted player of the group is 6-foot-8, 245-pound senior forward Jerrelle Benimon, the reigning Colonial Player of the Year. His 18 double-doubles lead the nation; perhaps more impressively, the Georgetown transfer has recorded five or more assists in five of his past nine starts.

“The thing that I think this kid does better than anybody else in the league, especially for a forward, is passing the ball,” Brady said of Benimon, a serious NBA prospect who is averaging 18.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. “He’s as good of a passer as anybody in the league, and I’m trying to think if there’s been anybody better at passing the ball in my six years.”

Sophomore wing Andre Nation has traditionally drawn Benimon on defense in the teams’ recent matchups – Towson beat JMU 80-71 in a lopsided game on Feb. 4 — but Dalembert is also eager to test his skills against the league’s top post player.

A right-ankle injury suffered in practice early last week cost Dalembert his newly acquired spot in the starting lineup, but the freshman still continued his recent surge by recording nine points, six rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes of play against Drexel.

Brady said he has yet to determine whether Dalembert will return to the starting lineup in place of sophomore forward Taylor Bessick for Wednesday’s game.

“We got our behinds kicked last time,” Dalembert said, “so it’s definitely a challenge for me to step it up on defense and for everybody else to step it up and show … that we can compete with anybody.”

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