HARRISONBURG – Sitting behind the desk inside his Convocation Center office Monday afternoon, James Madison basketball coach Matt Brady leaned forward, smiled and – after a short pause — initially declined comment.
The circumstances surrounding the recruitment of this year’s unheralded freshmen class was the topic at hand, and Brady was asked if his lame-duck contract status throughout the 2012-13 season had hampered his ability to bring in superior talent.
“No comment, you know what I mean?” Brady said with a big smile. “I like this freshmen class.”
Even so, inconsistent play was the defining theme of the sixth-year coach’s seven rookies during Madison’s 11-20 season.
Assuming standout sophomores Andre Nation, Ron Curry and Charles Cooke all return for the 2014-15 season, Brady is confident he now has the right mix of talent and experience in place to build a winner – regardless of whether the role players he’ll be relying on came to JMU as relative no-names.
“We didn’t recruit any of ’em to really start,” Brady, on a recruiting trip to New Jersey, said by phone Wednesday afternoon of this season’s freshman class. “We recruited this group, in general, to kind of complement the pieces already in place. I think each of them, in some respects, is a complementary piece.
“I don’t know that any of them are stars — quote-unquote ‘stars’ — but I think most college teams don’t have all stars. What I think the difference is between good teams and outstanding teams is the quality of the pieces around the stars you have. And in that respect, we really like this group.”
Here’s a closer look:
Biggest upside: Yohanny Dalembert
Dalembert arrived at JMU having started playing basketball only at age 15, but the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Haitian forward’s vast late-season improvement has him eyeing a starting spot next fall.
While Dalembert’s offensive game – in spite of his impressive patience in the post — remains relatively rudimentary, his defense, rebounding and on-court hustle are all things Brady has come to count on.
Dalembert ascended into Madison’s starting lineup following his career-high 15-point, 13-rebound performance on the road against league champion Delaware, but a right-ankle injury suffered in practice limited his effectiveness over the final three weeks of the season.
His final numbers – 2.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game over 28 appearances – don’t seem to match up with his true value.
“I think he’s got a chance to be a starter,” Brady said. “In fact, he had worked himself into the starting lineup and then he got hurt. But certainly he’s got potential and the physical tools.”
Most consistent: Tom Vodanovich
Most winning teams have a player like Vodanovich, a 6-8, 220-pound forward whose rough-and-tumble style of play translated into instant energy off the bench this season for the Dukes.
Vodanovich’s hot start in JMU’s season opener against Virginia — he sank three of his 12 3-pointers on the year — ultimately proved to be detrimental, in the opinion of Brady, who was frustrated at times by the New Zealander’s penchant to play from the perimeter.
But when scoring wasn’t the issue at hand, Vodanovich’s physicality, hustle and nose for the loose ball made him a much-needed asset on a team lacking big bodies under the basket. As Madison’s “glue guy,” Vodanovich twice recorded 11 rebounds off the bench and finished the season averaging 4.1 rebounds in 31 appearances.
“His game is just kind of scratching the surface,” Brady said. “I can envision him, on his really good days, I can envision him becoming somewhat similar to Willis Hall — the really effective [second-team All-Colonial Athletic Association] forward from the College of Charleston. They’re very similar athletically; I think that Willis Hall is obviously a senior with a lot of skill, and that’s a job that Tom needs to work on — just skill development.”
Hardest worker: Jackson Kent
Nicknamed “Petunia” by assistant coach Mike Deane for his lack of physicality, Kent struggled mightily over his final 16 games, averaging just 3.6 points on 29.9 percent shooting from the field.
It was an understandable drop off for the 6-7 sharpshooter, who – at 185 pounds – had the least college-basketball-ready body of any of JMU’s incoming recruits.
Yet Kent’s work ethic has never come into question.
Typical of a high school coach’s son, Kent was often the first player at the Convocation Center before practice, working on his jump shot, and one of the last to leave the gym afterward.
One of Brady’s biggest offseason points of emphasis – outside of shot instruction – will be getting his players into the weight room. Kent certainly figures to put in the time.
“He is a gym rat,” Brady said. “He likes being in the gym, he likes to get the shots up, he likes working on his game. He’s really engaged in the process of getting better.”
Kent was recruited as a point guard and, according to Brady, will continue to receive opportunities at that position. But Brady added that Kent will be looked to more so for instant offense going forward.
Mystery man: Paulius Satkus
Brady speaks as highly of Satkus as he does of any of his players, even though the 6-8 Lithuanian forward logged just 105 minutes of court time this season.
Dalembert’s emergence, Brady said, was the reason behind Satkus’ sparse use. However, when he finally did receive meaningful playing time in JMU’s final two games of the season, Satkus did not waste his chance.
In Madison’s season-ending loss to Towson, Satkus matched up with Jerrelle Benimon – perhaps the nation’s top mid-major big man – and more than held his own, recording eight points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes, all career bests.
Brady said Satkus – a quiet 215-pound left-hander — took to his shot instruction more than any other JMU player this season and has earned a spot in the regular rotation.
“Even though his opportunity was never very consistent, his play was,” Brady said. “When we put him into a game, he was always the same player. He plays the game really hard, with a high degree of toughness about him. And he was never affected by circumstance or environment. He’s a tough-minded kid, and he’s certainly another guy that is better than his numbers this season or going forward indicate. He’s got ability.”
Work to do: Ivan Lukic, Tom Rivard and Dimitrije Cabarkapa
These three players appear to be the odd men out when it comes to securing regular playing time next season. Rivard – a 6-7, 205-pound forward known for his high basketball IQ – started four of Madison’s first 13 games but fell completely out of Brady’s rotation due to poor shooting and subpar lateral quickness. Brady, however, did note that his staff knew shooting was a “hole in [Rivard’s] game” when it recruited Rivard and that the Worcester, Mass., native handled his changing role with “class and dignity.”
Lukic, meanwhile, was recruited as a stretch forward, but the 6-8 Serbian forward found little success from beyond the arc this season – going just 2-of-17 in 25 appearances. A concussion suffered in JMU’s win over Hofstra on Feb. 10 also kept Lukic out of practice for nearly three weeks and the physicality of the college game continues to be an adjustment for the 220-pounder.
Brady remains hopeful Lukic will develop into a valuable asset but noted, “I could paint a very good picture about his potential, but he’s gotta go make it happen.”
As for Cabarkapa, the 21-year-old Serbian forward appeared in just four games after taking a redshirt year for the 2012-13 season. Upon earning a chance at meaningful playing time in mid-February, he went 0-of-3 from the field in three minutes of first-half action in a win over North Carolina-Wilmington. That was the last time the 6-10 jump shooter appeared in a game.
Ultimately, basketball may not have been the only factor weighing on Brady and his staff during their recruitment of the 2013-14 freshman class.
Teams must achieve an academic progress rate score of at least 900 over four years, or 930 over the most recent two years, to avoid immediate penalties such as reduction of practice time and access to postseason competition.
In the scores released last June by the NCAA, Brady’s basketball program scored the lowest mark (932) of any of JMU’s athletic programs.
“We certainly, as a staff, were very aware of the propensity of this group being academically successful,” Brady said. “The only thing I would say about the APR is we’ve had one bad year in the APR. I feel very strongly going forward that will not be repeated.”