Last Thursday, James Madison held Poultry Industry Appreciation Night as the Delaware Blue Hens visited the Convocation Center.
But with the game on the line, it was JMU freshman Julien Wooden who was thrown into the fryer.
The Dukes (8-9, 1-5 CAA) have asked a lot of their first-year players this season. But when the young forward from Roanoke earned playing time in the critical late stages of the Colonial Athletic Association game, he responded.
As JMU and Delaware traded the lead multiple times in the final four minutes, Wooden scored twice to put his Dukes on top. First, he nailed a 3-pointer and then drove hard to the basket, switched to his left hand and scored through contact. During that stretch, he also blocked a shot.
Delaware came away with the win, as did Drexel in another close game two days later. But a bright spot in an otherwise dismal JMU weekend was the clutch play of some of the youngest Dukes.
“It’s encouraging,” JMU coach Louis Rowe, who brought in a well-regarded six-man recruiting class this season, said. “I also think they are talented and I hope they are embracing this opportunity, this chance to get to play as freshmen and be counted on the way they are counted on.”
Against Drexel, it was fellow freshman Michael Christmas who nailed a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left to get the Dukes within one possession and keep hope alive.
Christmas, the VHSL Class 6 Player of the Year at Landstown High in Virginia Beach last season, has started 15 of 17 games since arriving in Harrisonburg. Wooden, the Class 3A Player of the Year at Northside High School, has seen his role steadily increase.
Both are averaging more than 18 minutes per contest while another freshman, combo guard Jayvis Harvey, has also seen significant playing time - averaging 11 minutes per game. Two other first-year guards, Quinn Richey and Zyon Dobbs, have played less consistently, but gotten on the court in a few big moments.
“Their talent is very encouraging,” Rowe said. “We have other freshmen over there who work hard in practice and aren’t getting to play as much. And it is not like they are bad players. That’s what you hope these guys understand. There is a rotation and it is hard to get to the eighth or ninth guy. So you hope that the two that are out there understand what a blessing it is and that you’re not out there to be some sort of sideshow. We’re trying to win games.”
Christmas has been one of the most consistent rebounders on the team, pulling down 5.7 boards a game to go with 7.6 points a night. Wooden is averaging 5.6 points, but his versatility has been perhaps his greatest attribute.
At 6-foot-8, Wooden has a natural inclination to play around the 3-point arc. But as JMU has searched for depth in the post, he’s gotten most of his playing time at the four spot and picked up major minutes last week when junior big men Zach Jacobs and Dwight Wilson battled foul trouble.
But as the Dukes prepare to head to Towson for a Saturday afternoon game, needing to string together victories to get back into the CAA race, Rowe may ask for even more out of his young players.
“There’s not a lot of time; I’m smiling because a lot of people know what I’m talking about,” Rowe, who has an overall record of 42-73 in his fourth season, said. “I know this team can play better. Whatever amount of time we have, we are young. We have six freshmen on this team, but there are steps that need to be taken. We can’t keep saying we’re young, we have time. That’s not the case.”