As James Madison welcomes the college basketball season against an ostensibly familiar foe, it’s not quite the same Charlotte team the Dukes knocked off a year ago.
The 49ers return three starters from the team JMU beat 64-59 in Charlotte last November, but seven newcomers could play major roles as the teams meet again tonight at the Convocation Center. That’s potentially good news for a team that is trying to turn it around after an 8-21 debut season for coach Ron Sanchez.
“They brought in some new guys and some young guys,” JMU coach Louis Rowe said. “But they are talented. We know a lot of the young guys firsthand, just from being on the recruiting trail. There’s an upgrade in talent, so they are a very formidable opponent, a lot different than last year.”
Among the new 49ers who could make an impact is Oklahoma transfer Jordan Shepherd, who led Charlotte in scoring and minutes played in an exhibition loss to Georgia. The 6-4 junior guard sat out last season and averaged just three points per game during an inconsistent two years with the Sooners, but showed flashes of becoming a serious offensive threat in the Big 12.
Freshman point guard Jahmir Young also had an impressive debut in the exhibition, scoring 14 points with seven rebounds, three assists and three steals.
But they are going up a talented and experienced JMU backcourt led by junior wings Matt Lewis and Darius Banks along with sophomore point guard Deshon Parker. Lewis is a preseason first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association pick after averaging more than 16 points per game last season while Banks was on the second team and Parker is coming off an All-Rookie CAA campaign.
“We’re ready to get back out there and compete,” Lewis said. “It’s always good to be out there wearing the uniform and playing in front of people. We’ve been battling amongst ourselves in practice for so long and I think everybody is ready. There’s a lot of excitement for what we think we can do as a group.”
Even with plenty of fresh faces on the Charlotte roster, the diehard JMU fans will be familiar with at least one man on the 49ers side, and that’s Sanchez. The longtime Virginia assistant was cited by multiple reports as a candidate to take over the Dukes program nearly four years ago.
Some of those same reports indicated Sanchez was on the verge of accepting the job before JMU hired Rowe, a former standout player for the Dukes in the 1990s, though James Madison administrators strongly denied any kind of deal was ever in place.
When Sanchez got to Charlotte, he brought with him Virginia’s famed Pack Line defense, meaning even with plenty of new personnel, the Dukes have a good idea what the 49ers will try to do.
“There’s a lot to go off of with their principles and their style and structure,” Rowe said. “We know they are really disciplined defensively. Fighting drives, better discipline, playing tough. Their foundation is their defense.”