It appears James Madison might finally play again.
The Dukes haven’t taken the floor for a game since Dec. 11 when they defeated Radford at the Atlantic Union Bank Center in Harrisonburg. In the nearly one month since, JMU has had scheduled breaks for exams and four games either canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.
But as of Friday morning, the Dukes (9-2, 0-0 Colonial Athletic Association) appeared likely to have enough players to take on Hofstra (8-6, 0-1 CAA) on Sunday afternoon at the AUBC. If it goes down as scheduled, it will be the conference opener in James Madison’s last season in the CAA.
“We didn’t anticipate all this other stuff happening,” JMU coach Mark Byington said earlier this week. “We were anticipating playing Penn as our last non-conference game, kind of getting ready for CAA play, then we had an outbreak of COVID cases. We’ve been getting ready for a lot of situations with rescheduling games.”
For JMU, the toughest part of the Omicron variant surge that has hit the nation might be the timing. One could argue JMU ended its first semester with as much momentum as a program as it has had in nearly a decade.
The Dukes have won 82 percent of its games so far, giving JMU its best start in 35 years. The victories have included thrilling home court wins against Virginia, Old Dominion and George Mason. In the process, the Dukes snapped a four-game losing streak against the Patriots and scored their first-ever victory against U.Va.
And, of course, that nationally-televised game against the Cavaliers came in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a college basketball game in the Shenandoah Valley as JMU sold out its new 8,500-seat arena for the first time.
In terms of on-the-court success, fan engagement and recruiting, it could be difficult for many younger JMU supporters to remember a time when the Dukes were flying higher than they were last month.
Now the challenge is to pick up where they left off.
In terms of the NET rankings, used to help select and seed NCAA Tournament teams in March, JMU sits third in the CAA, ranked No. 131. Hofstra, which also scored a major conference victory earlier this season at Arkansas, ranks No. 101.
For Byington, the second-year JMU coach who is trying to make it 20 victories in his past 25 games, the only aspect of the starts and stops he has much control over is how the Dukes play on the court.
A victory against the Pride, who are almost always a top-tier team in the CAA, could make it feel like the long pause never happened. But JMU may need some time to knock off rust and will likely play with a limited roster with players coming in and out of COVID protocols.
“The hard thing is, when you’re a team, you feel like you have momentum,” Byington said. “Even though there were times we were winning games, I didn’t think we were playing that great. I thought we had so many areas to improve. I saw a lot of improvement leading into what was supposed to be the Morgan State game. It’s hard for us to be able to do anything the past couple of weeks. We’re trying to push forward the best we can and get ready for games.”
The Pride and Dukes are slated to tip off Sunday at 4 p.m., part of a doubleheader at the AUBC with the JMU women scheduled to take on Elon at 1 p.m.