By most metrics, James Madison has struggled on the defensive end the past two seasons.
But one aspect where the Dukes have regularly had success has been slowing down the opponents’ leading scorer.
It’s a challenge JMU once again faces Wednesday night at 7 p.m. as it heads to Radford to take on guard Carlik Jones and the Highlanders.
The Dukes (5-3) are coming off a victory against East Carolina in which they limited Jayden Gardner, one of the American Athletic Conference’s most dynamic scorers at nearly 20 points per game, to just nine field goal attempts.
A handful of those shots and most of his 16 points came late in the first half while JMU had starters Dwight Wilson, Darius Banks and Michael Christmas on the bench in foul trouble.
James Madison had similar success against Charlotte guard Jordan Shepherd in the season opener, holding the Oklahoma transfer to five of 14 shooting, and it’s a trend that dates back to early last season when the Dukes limited Gardner to six points in a game at ECU.
“Honestly, it’s about how we challenge these guys,” JMU coach Louis Rowe said. “We have to continue to challenge these guys because they are very capable young men. We say straight up that Jayden Gardner is a really, really good player. If you let him, he will dominate the game. And our guys, they answered that challenge.”
Even against former first-team All-CAA performers and current Utah Jazz teammates Justin Wright-Foreman (Hofstra) and Jarrell Brantley (College of Charleston), JMU has had success containing the prolific scorers while keeping field goal percentages down.
At Radford, the Dukes will face a redshirt junior in Jones who is not only a high scorer, averaging more than 20 points per game, but has been one of the nation’s most clutch performers with the game on the line.
“We’ve had many games where we answered that challenge,” Rowe said. “But it’s got to be a habit and we’ve got another big challenge against us on Wednesday. (Jones) has proven it from the day he set foot on Radford’s campus. He’s hit big shots at big moments and those type of players are always scary. You have to make guys like that work for what they get. You’re never going to shut a guy like that down.”
Radford enters the game just 2-5 against a tough non-conference schedule. But the Highlanders have a victory at Northwestern, their fourth road win against a major-conference opponent in three years, and are still considered the favorites to win the Big South Conference after losing in the tourney title game last season to Gardner-Webb.
The Dukes, winners of three of their past four, are trying to build momentum as the non-conference portion of the schedule begins to wind down. JMU was able to knock off Radford last season in the Convocation Center after the Highlanders were coming off a victory at Texas.
But coming up with those type of results consistently has not been easy for JMU and everyone around the program agrees pulling off another road win against a solid in-state foe would be a big moment for the Dukes.
“I think each game we have gotten better,” junior guard Matt Lewis said. “As a group everybody is coming around, freshmen playing better with each game. But continuing to grow like that as a team is the challenge and one we actually really look forward to.”