In less than a year, James Madison has gone from worst to first.
The Dukes secured at least a share of the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season crown Monday morning when the conference announced COVID-19 pauses for multiple programs. With the slate of games remaining, nobody can surpass JMU, which sits in first place with an 8-1 CAA record, 13-5 overall.
Even with a loss Friday against Drexel, the Dukes would finish tied with Northeastern atop the league standings. A victory would give first-year coach Mark Byington the title outright. JMU has also secured the No. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament, scheduled for March 6-9 in Harrisonburg. If Northeastern and JMU finish in a tie, the Dukes have the tiebreaker thanks to a season sweep of Towson, which split two games against the Huskies.
The regular-season title is quite an accomplishment for JMU, but Byington said his team has plenty of work to do before the CAA Tournament begins. JMU hasn’t won the conference playoff and taken the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament since 2013.
“I don’t like the point we are right now because I think the team that is going to win the championship is playing better than us right now,” Byington said. “That could be us. So we have to make sure we are continuing to get better. Where we are right now is great. But to win the championship we are going to be better than we are at this point.”
The Dukes claimed shares of the regular-season title in 1994, 2000, and 2015, but have not entered the CAA Tournament as the top seed since 1993.
JMU finished alone in last place a season ago, going 2-16 in league play before bowing out to Elon in the play-in round of the CAA Tournament. The Dukes' only two CAA victories came against UNC Wilmington, which fired coach C.B. McGrath midseason.
Over the previous four seasons before Byington’s arrival last March, JMU had lost more CAA games than any other team in the league.
But the Dukes returned Preseason CAA Player of the Year Matt Lewis and Byington revamped the roster with a handful of experienced transfers and three impactful freshmen. After a 3-4 start and a pause following a positive COVID-19 test in December, James Madison has since won 10 of its past 11 games. The lone loss came on the road at Northeastern, a setback which the Dukes avenged the next day.
JMU enters Friday’s regular-season finale against Drexel on a seven-game winning streak and is scheduled to play in the quarterfinal round of the CAA Tournament March 7 at 2:30 p.m. at the Atlantic Union Bank Center.
This season marks the biggest turnaround for a CAA program since Towson went from 1-17 in CAA play in 2011-12 to 13-5 and a second-place finish the following season. But it’s the first time a CAA program has gone from last to first in one season since Richmond pulled off that feat between 1982-83 and 1983-84 when it was a six-team league still known as the ECAC South.
With its seeding determined, the biggest question going forward for JMU is the health of Lewis. The senior guard averages 19.7 points per game, but sat out the entire second half of the Dukes’ Feb. 14 victory against Hofstra after injuring his left knee late in the first half.
Byington wouldn’t say for sure that Lewis would play Friday against Drexel.
“Matt last week lifted weights,” Byington said. “We were extra cautionary, he’s still being evaluated. We’ll decide on Friday if he can go or not. We’re not going to jeopardize him, but if he’s available he’ll play and if not some of the other guys will step up.”
In theory, the Dukes could afford to rest key players against the Dragons, but Byington said the way the schedule has played out late in the season that’s not what his team will do. JMU hasn’t played a game since Feb. 14 and with the Drexel game moved to Friday the team will have more than a week to prepare for the quarterfinal round of the CAA Tournament the following Sunday.
“It’s not like you have to worry about minutes or guys being tired or wearing them down,” Byington said. “We want to make sure we are feeling good going into the tournament, and that’s playing good basketball. We’ve got one more opportunity for the regular season and then we’ll turn the page to the tournament.”