More than likely, much more serious challenges await the James Madison women as the Dukes get ready to open the college basketball season tonight as part of a doubleheader at the Convocation Center.
JMU’s opponent, Longwood, is coming off a three-win season while the Dukes tied a school record with 29 victories in 2018-19 and have five seniors returning, including preseason Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year Kamiah Smalls.
The potential for a blowout is there, but even with games against Villanova and No. 4 Maryland on the horizon, there’s plenty to keep an eye on with the Dukes as they try not to get too far ahead of themselves.
“All of our experience doesn’t mean we get to start with five wins or anything like that,” JMU coach Sean O’Regan said. “We’ve got to earn each win. We took on the philosophy since I’ve gotten here that this is all that matters. All you can control that day is coming out and having a good performance against a team we really don’t know anything about. They have a lot of newcomers and we’re at 0-0, too.”
While the Lancers face a steep hill to climb in an attempt to turn around the program, they have some experience themselves led by All-Big South forward Dayna Rouse and senior guard Jada Russell, a high school teammate of Smalls.
Still, the season opener has potential to be a lot more about JMU working out a few kinks before a deep dive into what could become a huge season for the Dukes.
Even with the five seniors returning, there were some questions coming in where O’Regan might turn to at point guard. Early indications are Smalls and sophomore Madison Green might share those duties with seniors Lexie Barrier and Jackie Benitez rounding out the backcourt and seniors Kayla Cooper-Williams and Devon Merritt sharing minutes at center.
“I’m ready to just get going,” Smalls said. “I think everybody on this team is. As a group, everybody has been working hard and competing and there are a lot of people here who can help make this a special season for JMU.”
For practical purposes, JMU is operating like a team with six starters, as all of the aforementioned players can expect a heavy workload. But another question that may begin to get answered will be how O’Regan fills out the rest of the rotation.
Freshman Kiki Jefferson was one of the team’s leading scorers during a summer European tour for the Dukes. Junior forward Breyenne Bellerand has battled an offseason injury, but should compete for minutes when healthy along with returning players such as Eleanore Marciszewski and Jaylin Carodine, not to mention Syracuse transfer Nikki Oppenheimer and freshman Rayne Tucker.
“We know we have enough talent,” O’Regan said. “I know we are progressing. For me, we’ve got depth and early on I want to see what players can do. When it comes to conference time, I think a seven-and-a-half [player] hard rotation is what I’m most comfortable with. But I’ve been wrong before and if it’s better for us to play 10 or nine, I’m open to it.”