JMU’s Low-Post Blues
Dukes Off To Unusual Slow Start
Posted: December 13, 2012
HARRISONBURG — At this point, Kenny Brooks’ expectations for his James Madison women’s basketball team’s frontcourt aren’t high.
“It doesn’t have to be stellar,” the Dukes’ coach said Monday. “It just has to be respectable.”
So far, it hasn’t been either.
JMU has opened the season with a 3-5 record against a tough schedule that’s ranked No. 16 by RealTimeRPI.com. The five teams that have beaten the Dukes have a combined record of 33-12. Madison is under .500 through the first eight games for only the second time in 30 years, and a major factor in the unexpected start is the lack of a low-post presence.
“Our guards are good enough to help us win basketball games, but they’re not good enough to carry it when you don’t have low-post production,” said Brooks, whose team returned four starters from last year’s WNIT runner-up team. “We’ve got to be able to throw the ball inside at some point in time. Then people have to pay attention to our low-post players.”
Madison’s leading scorer in the post right now is 6-foot-2 senior Nikki Newman, but of her 51 points, 24 have come on 3-pointers, and the Turner Ashby High School graduate spends more time on the wing than she does on the block.
Of the Dukes’ true post players, the leading scorer is 6-0 sophomore forward Toia Giggetts, averaging 4.8 points per game. After her, it’s 6-3 sophomore center/forward Crystal Ross (4.3 ppg), 6-3 senior center Kanita Shepherd (2.4 ppg) and 6-0 freshman forward Destiny Jones (0.8 ppg).
The lack of low-post offense has turned JMU one-dimensional. Through eight games, the Dukes live and die by the jump shot.
“This year, we have been relying on the jump shot,” Newman said. “But I have confidence. I think our post players realize that they need to have an effect inside, and we’ve been working on that. … I feel like, if we have confidence in them and believe in them and look to them in practices and in games, I feel like that will boost their confidence, as well.”
But it’s not just offense. The defense, the strength of JMU’s 2011-12 team, has struggled, giving up an average of 68.5 points per game. Last season, 6-2 center Lauren Whitehurst took up the middle, but the Dukes haven’t found someone to replace her. Opponents averaged 56.9 points against JMU last year.
“She brought us energy; she brought us our life,” Newman said. “She was always there to pick everybody up. She was basically like the mom of the team, and we definitely miss that. But, right now, we don’t really have anybody who’s that Lauren Whitehurst. But I think we’ll get to that point.”
Of late, health has been a problem.
Giggetts is coming back from a knee injury and a concussion. Shepherd hasn’t played since 2010-11 after tearing a knee ligament (ACL) and has been slowed by multiple setbacks. Giggetts and Shepherd also have missed practice recently because of a knee problem and being sick, respectively. Jones also has been sick and missed practice.
But inexperience has hurt, too. Ross played sparingly last season, and Brooks said Jones is athletic but still needs to work on the mental side of the college game.
JMU has plenty of time to address its frontcourt deficiencies. The Dukes have been off since last Tuesday and don’t play again until Sunday at Duquesne. Brooks is using the time to experiment. He has moved Jazmon Gwathmey down low, playing the athletic-and-rangy 6-2 redshirt freshman former shooting guard at power forward and even center.
“If we get the ball inside to her, she can catch it,” Brooks said. “She’s a threat. She can turn around and she can score it. We just have to make sure we give her short stints, and she’s not trying to go toe-to-toe with people who out-weight her and are stronger than her for long, long periods of time.”
Brooks said it’s not a permanent switch, but something he’s done out of necessity. Gwathmey said she is adjusting.
“It’s going good,” the 19-year-old said. “It’s not my natural position, but he’s putting me down there because I’m quicker than most of the [forwards] and [centers] and have good touch around the basket.”
One of the toughest parts about the move for the spindly Gwathmey is the physicality of playing down low.
“I’m getting there,” she said. “The bumps and the bruises, they hurt, but I’m getting pretty comfortable banging back. I’m giving them bumps and bruises, too.”
Gwathmey, though, isn’t an ideal fix. It’s likely she’ll end up back at guard in the future, especially with Providence transfer Lauren Okafor, a 6-3 center, being eligible to play next season. JMU also has signed 6-2 forward D.D. Griffin of Western Branch for its class of 2013, and Brooks said he’ll likely add one or two more to next season’s freshmen, including a post player.
Brooks said, though, he has seen progress.
“I told the team, ‘We’re not that far off,’” he said. “We’ve had a very challenging schedule. We’re going into a stretch where, if we start playing well, we can right the ship.”