HARRISONBURG – Just about every team across college basketball is preparing for the 2019-20 season with high hopes. For James Madison, the expectations became something more tangible Wednesday when the Colonial Athletic Association released its preseason poll.
The Dukes, returning four starters from a team that went 14-19 and 6-12 in conference play, were picked to finish fourth, receiving three first-place votes. Reigning CAA regular season champion Hofstra was once again voted the favorite, though second-place College of Charleston actually received 18 first-place votes to 14 for the Pride. Third-place Northeastern, the defending CAA Tournament champion, received four first-place votes.
”I've been saying there are six teams that could finish first,“ Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said. ”But that means one of those teams could finish sixth.”
Delaware was picked to finish fifth and received a pair of first-place nods. Towson, William & Mary, Drexel, UNC Wilmington and Elon rounded out the preseason poll, voted on by league coaches, sports information directors and media.
“It’s going to be extremely competitive again this year,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “The preseason rankings are just a reflection of teams’ returning roster. That’s all you can really go on, but each team might have an X-factor. When you look at all the good players coming back and the coaches in this league it’s no question it appears to be a wide open league.”
Faith in JMU stems largely from the crop of returning talent, headlined by a pair of preseason All-CAA selections. Junior guard Matt Lewis, who is the conference’s leading returning player in minutes played and fourth in scoring at 16.4 points per game last season, was selected to the first team. Fellow junior swingman Darius Banks was named to the second team after averaging 12.3 points and shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range.
“I have a lot of respect for the league and how tight it is,” JMU coach Louis Rowe said. “I don’t think anybody should be caught up in the rankings early. There are a lot of good teams and a lot of good players. We know what we are capable if we play consistently, but we have to hold ourselves to that level.”
Lewis was joined on the first team by Preseason CAA Player of the Year Grant Riller of Charleston, along with William & Mary’s Nathan Knight, Towson’s Brian Fobbs and Hofstra’s Eli Pemberton.
Also named to the second team were Delaware’s Ryan Allen, Hofstra’s Desure Buie, Northeastern’s Jordan Roland and Drexel’s Camren Wynter. Northeastern’s Bolden Brace, UNCW’s Kai Toews, Delaware’s Kevin Anderson, Elon’s Marcus Sheffield II and Drexel’s James Butler all received honorable mention.
JMU, which also returns 2018-19 CAA All-Rookie team selection Deshon Parker at point guard and big man Dwight Wilson, who averaged 10.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last season, opens its final season in the Convocation Center Nov. 6 at home against Charlotte.
The Dukes also welcome several newcomers who could make an impact this season. Freshman small forward Michael Christmas headlines the incoming recruiting class while redshirt freshman power forward Devon Flowers is back after missing virtually all of last season with an injury.
The emergence of Parker and addition of Flowers in particular allow Lewis and Banks to return to their natural positions on the wings after spending time playing all over the court much of their first two seasons. Lewis said he’s become more comfortable in that role, but for him the additional talent and depth on the roster is a bigger factor in why expectations are higher in Harrisonburg.
“More than comfortability,” Lewis said. “It is knowing that we have guys who can help us win.”