Top Seed Possible?
HARRISONBURG — Matt Brady said he’s unconcerned with seedings for the Colonial Athletic Association basketball tournament — he’s focused on his team’s next game rather than three games ahead of now.
But the classic coach-speak hadn’t yet trickled down to the James Madison basketball team moments after its buzzer-beating win at Delaware on Sunday night.
“We’re going for that No. 1 spot,” senior forward Rayshawn Goins said. “I know we’re two games behind, and we get a chance to knock Northeastern off. If we get somebody else to beat them, then we’ve got a good shot at that No. 1 spot.”
Added freshman Andre Nation: “We’re trying to win out right now, trying to come in first, get that bye.”
Entering today’s televised 7 p.m. game at first-place Northeastern — the only CAA team JMU has not yet faced — the Dukes (16-12 overall, 10-5 in the Colonial) trail the Huskies (17-10, 12-3) by two games with three to play.
If JMU wins tonight, it will still need Northeastern to lose at least one additional game, but any tie in the standings would go to the Dukes, due to the head-to-head victory. If Northeastern wins, JMU’s hopes for the regular-season title — and the reward of a first-round bye in the seven-team CAA tournament — are gone.
Brady wouldn’t take the bait when asked about conference tournament implications, but he certainly realizes that his players might be a bit more charged up for tonight’s contest at Matthews Arena in downtown Boston.
“This is another big game. It’s nice to be in big games in February,” Brady said. “I think we’ve had other quality wins in our program in my time here, but they haven’t kept us in contention this late in the season. So it’s a tribute to the kids for buying in and sticking together.”
Northeastern hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991, but it appeared to be the favorite to capture the CAA’s automatic bid when it won 12 of its first 13 league games, including an 8-0 start. Now, after consecutive losses to Delaware and North Carolina-Wilmington, the Huskies seem vulnerable, even if they do hold the top spot in the standings.
“I thought we had pretty good efforts in both games,” coach Bill Coen said of the losses. “From an execution standpoint we just fell short.”
Execution of one or two plays often determines whether the Huskies win or lose. Eleven of their 15 conference games have been decided by six or fewer points.
“His teams always play in close games,” Brady said of Coen. “They make an awful lot of passes, they reverse sides of the floor, they don’t overpower you, they take care of the basketball, they don’t play very fast. They’re going to be in a lot of close games. … And when you play that many close games, you’re going to lose some of them.”
Leading scorer Joel Smith sat out Northeastern’s two-point loss against Delaware because of an ankle injury and then was scoreless in just 16 minutes during the team’s 73-67 defeat at UNCW on Saturday. Coen said Tuesday that Smith is “rehabbing furiously,” hoping to return strong for tonight’s game.
Smith (16.3 points per game) carried the load when fellow senior guard Jonathan Lee missed the first nine games of the season with a foot injury. The versatile Lee, a preseason CAA first-team selection, is averaging 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game since his return. NU is 13-3 when both Lee and Smith play 20-plus minutes.
The Huskies’ other standout player is sophomore swingman Quincy Ford, who’s putting up 13.3 points and 5.8 rebounds a night. Forward Reggie Spencer is averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds, but isn’t a primary option.
“We won’t have to [double-team anybody] in this game, for the most part,” Brady said. “Our perimeter guys have to guard their perimeter guys. I like our perimeter guys defensively.”
JMU point guard Devon Moore might be the best perimeter defender in the league. He hasn’t been bad offensively, either. With 32 assists in his last four games, Moore is now just six shy of breaking Pierre Curtis’ all-time mark (463) at JMU.
Moore made the game-winning pass on Andre Nation’s last-second alley-oop dunk at Delaware, a game Brady said created “maybe the most pure joy our team has felt after a win” during his five-year tenure.
The Dukes came back from 11-point deficits in each half. Against a team as offensively sound as Northeastern, JMU isn’t eager to find itself in any double-digit holes.
“To go into their house is going to be a big game,” Moore said. “We need a 40-minute game to win this.”
The Huskies are actually just 6-7 at home, where they’re drawing 1,911 fans (roughly 1,000 fewer than the school’s hockey team brings in). They rank 10th in the 11-team CAA in basketball attendance.
Northeastern is second in shooting (44.9 percent), first in 3-point shooting (37.1 percent) and first in points per possession (1.047) in the Colonial. While Northeastern’s defense forces more turnovers per game than any other team, it’s just eighth in points per possession and last in field-goal defense. NU also collects the fewest rebounds of any CAA squad.
Coen said he’s not too concerned with his team’s recent losses, or the fact that the league race is suddenly tightening.
“What we’ve talked about, really since the beginning of the year, is this journey,” he said. “You’ve got to put one foot in front of the other, and if you stop to smell the roses, somebody’s going to catch you. … The ultimate prize is to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year in your conference tourney.”
After tonight, Northeastern has a week off before playing its final two games, at Georgia State and home against Old Dominion. JMU’s final two games are home against Georgia State and at William & Mary.