‘Mid’ Showdown

Experts: JMU-Zags Compelling

Posted: March 22, 2014

HARRISONBURG — Neither James Madison nor Gonzaga are happy being exiled to Texas — more than 3,000 miles combined from the two schools — for their first-round NCAA tournament game, but analysts are thrilled about the pairing of two of women’s basketball’s top mid-majors.

“Quite honestly,” ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme said, “it’s one of my favorite matchups of the first round. They are two teams I think are really good, and people don’t get a chance to see much of them, and this will provide that opportunity in one setting.”

Graham Hays, who covers women’s basketball for ESPN, agreed. He said Sunday’s 5:30 p.m. game at Texas A&M between 11th-seeded JMU (28-5) and No. 6 seed Gonzaga (29-4) is especially compelling. Why? The two teams, with their balanced scoring, strong defenses and lengthy players, have a lot in common.

“It’s hard to find matchups that are more balanced than this one,” Hays said. “... For these, quote unquote, mid-majors, both rebound the ball really well whether they’re playing majors, mid-majors, whatever. They both play really good defense. They’re both really balanced. They both have players who can take over games in a certain way, whether it’s Haiden Palmer for Gonzaga or Kirby Burkholder for JMU — but they also have a lot of offensive balance beyond those players. Are they mirror images? Maybe that’s a little bit much, but they’re really similar.”

The coaches didn’t disagree, with 12th-year JMU coach Kenny Brooks comparing Sunday’s game to an intrasquad scrimmage.

For the Dukes, seeking their first NCAA win since 1991 and Brooks’ first in four trips, that means they might see some man-to-man defense — something opponents didn’t do much to Madison this season. Instead, the Dukes, because of the match-up problems they create with their speed, got zone, zone and more zone.

Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference champion making it sixth straight NCAA appearance, plays a lot of man but also is adept at switching defenses, which is just one of many things it has in common with the Dukes.

“They hang their hat on the defensive principles. They do a good job of rotating; they’re quick,” Brooks said. “The offense is simple but effective, and they love to get up and down the floor. It’s going to be a contrast to what we’ve seen the last 15 to 18 games because everyone always wants to sit back in a zone and dare us to shoot from the outside. Gonzaga’s going to get into us and try to pressure us.”

The Bulldogs, ranked 18th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, led the WCC in scoring defense (56.0 points per game), margin of victory (19.6 ppg), 3-point defense (27.8), offensive rebounds (17.2 per game), steals (11.8 per game) and turnover margin (plus-7).

This season, Gonzaga — a 7,691-student Catholic school in Spokane, Wash. — has won with inconsistency. But it’s a good kind.

“This is one of the craziest seasons I’ve ever had in those terms,” said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves, in his 11th season. “We’ve been so up and down individually — so inconsistent. I’ve never had a team like this, but team-wise, we’ve been very consistent, and it’s because someone always seems to step up.

“... My top six could scrimmage my next six 10 times, and it would end up 5-5. And it’s been crazy to coach because I never know on any given night who’s going to give us something.”

Gonzaga, which has had several WNBA draft picks over the past four years, is led by Palmer. The 6-foot junior guard averages a team-best 15.5 points game while never letting the ridiculous-ness of a shot deter her from letting it fly.

Six-foot-4 junior forward Sunny Greinacher (11.5 ppg) and 6-0 junior guard Lindsay Sherbert (10.8 ppg) also are key contributors for the Bulldogs, a team that’s not just similar in style but also personnel.

Graves said he wouldn’t mind trading for Jazmon Gwathmey, a 6-2 JMU forward who was named the Colonial Athletic Association tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after helping the Dukes to their first CAA title since 2011.

“Just the combination of length and skill and athleticism, it’s really impressive to watch,” Graves said of Gwathmey. “We like length. Even though we don’t start as long as we have, she’s a prototypical Gonzaga player over the last decade. … But I’ve been impressed with all of them. There are four or five kids on that team I’d love to have.”

But if the Dukes can beat Gonzaga, they will not only break a 23-year NCAA win drought but also get themselves one game away from their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1991. If JMU wins, they’ll play again on Tuesday against the winner of host and third-seeded Texas A&M and No. 14 seed North Dakota.

Some believe JMU is under-seeded as an 11, but  the low seed has put the Dukes in a position to make a run — and they’re thinking about it.

“I’ve definitely looked at the seeding and the schedules and all of that, and I think we’re under-seeded, but that’s fine,” JMU senior forward Nikki Newman said. “... If we can get those first two wins under our belt going to Texas, then, I was looking … and we’d probably end up seeing Duke in the [Sweet 16] — I think they’re very beatable, as well. But, obviously, you have to focus on the first game with Gonzaga.”

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