HARRISONBURG — Who would have thought the most noticeable thing at the Convocation Center this winter wouldn’t be the new, less-than-subtle design on the arena’s floor?
But the James Madison women’s basketball team has trumped the huge Duke Dogs emblazoned on both ends of the court, garnering attention by bludgeoning conference opponents by an average of 28.9 points en route to a 21-4 record that includes a marquee win and no bad losses.
One thing it doesn’t include is a Top 25 ranking.
Yes, the Dukes were picked in the preseason to win the Colonial Athletic Association, but their dominance has been startling. They’re 11-0 in the league and are as much of a juggernaut as Delaware was the previous two seasons, when big-name Elena Delle Donne led the Blue Hens to a 44-0 CAA record en route to back-to-back conference titles.
Eventually, people noticed. The Blue Hens climbed as high as 15th in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll last year. With just five games left in the regular season, the Dukes are receiving points in the media poll, but several unranked teams are getting more love from the voters – not that JMU is overly concerned.
“It’s the cherry on top. It’s not the sundae, so to speak, because it’s all subjective and it’s a small group of people’s opinions,” said JMU coach Kenny Brooks, whose team last was ranked in late December 2009, when they were No. 25 in both the AP and coaches’ polls. “… We feel we’re a Top 25 team and, when we get the opportunity, we need to go out there and prove that. It’s just hard for a team like us to get recognition. You have to do something spectacular to be able to get in there, and right now, we’re on the cusp.”
What’s keeping JMU out of the polls?
Doug Feinberg and Graham Hays, who cover women’s basketball for the AP and ESPN, respectively, said three major factors are holding back JMU: 1) the Dukes are a mid-major team, 2) they haven’t beaten an opponent ranked at the time, and 3) the traditionally muscular CAA is down after powers Delaware and Drexel got torched by graduation.
“The conference isn’t getting the national attention that others may be, so it’s tougher for James Madison to get noticed,” Feinberg said. “… Their wins are good, but they haven’t beaten teams that, at the time, were ranked.”
JMU does have good wins. The Dukes went 4-3 against major-conference teams, beating Virginia, UCLA, St. John’s and Pitt. Madison’s losses were to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and then-No. 10 North Carolina, but they took Vandy into overtime (losing by four points) and lost to UNC by three.
The death-or-glory non-conference schedule has appropriately bolstered JMU’s RPI, though, helping offset the mediocre CAA (overall Madison’s schedule is rated 147th out of 350 Division I teams).
The Dukes, according to RealTimeRPI.com, had an RPI of 48 as of Wednesday evening. Only three of JMU’s seven major-conference opponents have a better RPI: St. John’s (17) Vanderbilt (25) and UNC (26). Two of those teams are now ranked in the AP Top 25 — No. 11 North Carolina and No. 22 St. John’s — and one (Vanderbilt) just dropped out. The Commodores had been 16th.
St. John’s, rated No. 17 by RealTimeRPI, was the Dukes’ best win. Mississippi State, rated No. 91, was its worst loss.
If the AP poll went beyond 25 spots, JMU would be ranked No. 33 this week. The Dukes got eight points in the most recent poll. In the coaches’ poll, they got 10 points and would be ranked 34th.
“The main thing, right now, is you have 10 or 11 really, really elite teams in there,” said Hays, who ranked JMU second in his most recent mid-major Top 10 for ESPN. “Maybe you can go up to 14 or 15 that [are] kind of on the fringes of that group. And after that, from 16 down to … 35 or 40, I don’t think there’s really much difference. I would put James Madison there probably around the 20-25 range. But you can make a case for 20 teams in there.”
It’s always hard for mid-majors to get ranked. Delaware got a boost from Delle Donne, a name player who initially signed with powerhouse Connecticut and now is a WNBA star. This season, No. 20 Gonzaga has overcome the little-guy stigma to be ranked most of the season out of the very strong West Coast Conference, which has five teams with an RPI of 80 or better. The CAA has one: Madison. Drexel is next at 106, then Delaware at 111, and in three games against Drexel and Delaware, the Dukes have won by an average of 24.6 points.
Feinberg said JMU isn’t a secret to voters. The issue, he said, has been the CAA, which is a bit of a ball and chain for the Dukes.
“I see a lot of voters across the country when I go cover things, and I know people are aware of them,” he said. “So they’re not one of these hidden teams that no one’s ever heard of and no one knows anything about. It just takes a little bit of time. I think they’re a little bit hurt right now by the CAA not being as strong as it’s been the last few years.”
Both Feinberg and Hays agreed that JMU is deserving of an NCAA tournament berth. Hays, who said he watches about 15 games a week and has seen JMU about six times, said he’s “impressed” by the Dukes’ balance and especially their defense. The balance, he said, is uncommon for mid-major teams.
“You’re usually looking at teams that are good in one or two areas and kind of get by in everything else,” Hays said. “James Madison is good at everything. I’m not sure they’re great in anything except maybe defense, but they’re good in everything, which gives them a chance in pretty much any game, which you saw when they played Vanderbilt or St. John’s or North Carolina.”
Currently, ESPN’s NCAA tournament mock bracket has the Dukes as an eight seed playing No. 9 Georgia at Storrs, Conn. If they won, they would almost certainly play Connecticut, the predicted No. 1 seed in that region. And being in the NCAA tourney, of course, is something Brooks cares about more than being ranked in any poll.
“I don’t want to be greedy; I just want to be in, but if I had my druthers, I would rather be a 10 seed than an eight seed or a nine seed,” he said. “It’s such a big gap between the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 seeds in women’s basketball, more than in men’s basketball. … And a lot of those top seeds are the host team. If you’re an eight-nine team and you’ve got to go to Storrs, Conn., not only are you playing Connecticut in the second round if you win, you’re playing Connecticut at Connecticut.”
Ranked or not, there’s little doubt the Dukes will get to the NCAA tournament, either by winning the Colonial championship or receiving at at-large bid.