Signs Of Life

Dukes Just 3-6, But Recent Results Are Promising

Posted: December 11, 2012

JMU coach Matt Brady said he’s seen positives despite his team’s 3-6 record. (Photo by Michael Reilly)
HARRISONBURG — After just nine games, it may be too soon to make definitive judgments about the James Madison basketball team. So, while his team is in the midst of the fall semester’s final exams, coach Matt Brady declined to give the Dukes a grade.

‘“I’ll reserve judgment on that,” Brady said Monday after a long hesitation. “Like my team academically, there’s a flurry of activity, but the results aren’t in.”

With more than a quarter of the season behind it, JMU is 3-6 after an overtime loss Saturday against Richmond. It may have been the Dukes’ most encouraging performance, even if the result didn’t land in their favor.

For Brady, that’s a plus. He’s in the fifth and final year of his contract — meaning he’s on the hot seat — and he acknowledged Monday that there’s pressure to get better.

 “Going forward, I think we can be a very significant factor in the CAA race,” Brady said at his weekly chat with media and fans at O’Neill’s restaurant. “I’ve been told that our team needs to get better, and that we need to be a factor in the CAA race – I think we’re going to do that.

“I’m not overly concerned with our record, but I can tell you it’s not where I would like it to be, it’s not where JMU would like it to be, it’s not where [the] administration would like it to be. It’s not where everybody sitting here would like it to be. But the fact of the matter is we’re going to get better, and we’re going to try really hard.”

Brady’s job status is likely tied to the Dukes’ ability to become legitimate contenders in the Colonial Athletic Association. When Brady’s contract was not extended after last season (it’s rare in college to have a coach enter his final season with no assurances of an extension), athletic director Jeff Bourne said he expected the Dukes to be competitive this season.

Asked for his early thoughts on this year’s team, Bourne — who did not attend the Richmond game because he was at a Division I-AA playoff contest as part of the NCAA’s selection committee — said he’s seen positives.

“Again, I want to see our team be extremely competitive,” Bourne said. “I think we have some talented kids on the team this year. Watching clips the other night, I felt like the kids were playing really hard. But it’s more than one game, it’s the season.”

In Brady’s first four seasons, JMU never finished higher than sixth in the regular season and has gone 2-4 in the league tournament, failing to make it past the second round.

Despite Madison’s slow start to 2012-13, this could be the team’s best chance to vie for a CAA crown, given the league’s weakness in both numbers and performance. Because of academic sanctions and exit penalties, only seven of 11 teams are eligible for the CAA tournament, and hardly any team that wears the CAA crest has made the conference proud in non-conference play.

Just two teams – William & Mary (6-3) and George Mason (6-4) – have winning records. W&M hasn’t defeated anyone of note, while Mason’s season-opening win over Virginia is its only victory against a top-150 team.

Early favorites Drexel (3-6) and Delaware (3-7) have flopped out of the gate, potentially opening the door for the rest of the league. Not that anyone has proven they want to bust through that opening.

The CAA is a combined 37-59 (.385) in non-conference games. It ranks 24th out of 33 leagues in Ratings Percentage Index, right between the Summit League and the Big Sky.

“I haven’t been …  following every tick of the clock of every game, but it looks a little more up-for-grabs than people thought,” said Old Dominion’s Blaine Taylor, whose typically contending team is just 1-8 and ineligible for the CAA tourney anyway because of its impending move to Conference USA.

At 3-6, JMU isn’t much different than anybody else in the struggling Colonial. The Dukes, who resume play Sunday at home against UNC-Greensboro (1-5), have three non-conference games remaining before they begin the CAA schedule at ODU on Jan. 2. JMU will play San Jose State and San Diego on Dec. 22 and 23 in Las Vegas.

That will give the Dukes time to iron out some of their problems – namely defense and overall on-court familiarity – before embarking on the more vital part of the calendar.

“We have significant flaws,” Brady said. “It’s my job to make sure they stop showing up. And once those flaws are glossed over and become less of our liabilities, then we have a chance, just like anybody in this league.”

Brady’s best team – the 2010-11 squad that won 21 games with star center Denzel Bowles – was in a CAA that ranked ninth in the nation, right between Conference USA and the Atlantic 10. The Dukes finished 10-8 in conference, earning a sixth seed in the tournament, and were upset by No. 11 seed William & Mary.

That JMU team began the season 15-3, but only six of those first 18 opponents finished with winning records.

Brady said that over the years he and his staff at JMU have done a nice job of “scheduling relative to my team,” but he believes the beginning of this season was too challenging for a group that relies heavily on three freshmen and was missing senior forward Andrey Semenov – who has proven to be the Dukes’ best two-way player in the three full games he’s been active since recovering from a groin injury.

“This is a little more challenging than I would have liked,” Brady said. “… We’re paying a price for that, and that’s my mistake. I take blame for that.”

Brady said he can’t just dismiss the early losses and focus on conference success. He will be judged for this season in its totality. Of course, a strong showing in the CAA can make a lot of people forget about losses in November and December.

“We’re 3-6 for a reason, but I’m optimistic that we’re going to keep getting better,” Brady said. “I love our freshman class; we need our seniors to play smarter. We need them to play harder. We need them to buy into their roles. And I think our roles are starting to form, and I like where we’re heading.”

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