BALTIMORE — It’s a “no-brainer” in the eyes of Delaware coach Tina Martin. James Madison has the Colonial Athletic Association’s best women’s basketball team heading into the 2013-14 season.
Martin’s peers agreed with her and JMU was picked to win the nine-team league in the CAA’s preseason poll Tuesday. The Dukes also got plenty of individual recognition, with senior guard Kirby Burkholder named preseason Player of the Year and sophomore guard Precious Hall joining her on the league’s first-team.
“Hands down. Not even a question,” Martin said of the Dukes’ top standing. “They’ve got all that veteran leadership back. They have proven players — more so than anyone in the league. I think it’s a no-brainer that they’re preseason No. 1. I don’t even think it’s close.”
Martin’s Blue Hens, who won the title in 2012 and again last year after back-to-back JMU championships in 2010 and 2011, were picked fifth. They lost four starters — none more important than Elena Delle Donne, the 6-foot-5 comet that passed through the CAA and is now a star in the WNBA.
That opened the door for the Dukes to play the role of favorite this season.
“I think we’ve had a target on our back for a while and we’ve operated from that premise for a while,” JMU coach Kenny Brooks said. “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue because our kids are veteran enough to know that every game matters and you have to play hard.”
Brooks said he believes six of his players are capable of making one of the league’s three postseason all-conference teams. Senior swing player Nikki Newman, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year (and, like Burkholder, a Turner Ashby High School graduate), returns from a season-ending injury. Hall and Jazmon Gwathmey, a pair of sophomore guards, were two of the league’s top rookies last year. Junior forward Toia Giggetts and junior center Lauren Okafor, a 6-3 transfer from Providence, will both be key factors in the Dukes’ frontcourt.
And then there’s Burkholder, who barely contributed as a freshman but is a projected MVP as a senior. Did Brooks see this coming when he recruited her out of TA?
“Not in a million years,” he said. “And that’s nothing against Kirby; it’s a testament to her work ethic. She’s come a long way and adapting. We recruited her as a basketball player, we found out she was a shooter, put her in that role, and every year that role is growing. This year, we’re adding leadership to it.”
Projected second in the CAA this season is Drexel. The Dragons knocked the Dukes (25-11) out of last March’s CAA tournament and won the National Invitational Tournament after falling to Delaware in the CAA final. Northeastern and Towson come in at No. 3 and No. 4. Then come Delaware, Hofstra, College of Charleston, North Carolina-Wilmington and William & Mary.