bball 7/10

JMU redshirt sophomore forward Justin Amadi skies for a rebound in a loss versus Delaware on Jan. 29. He's returning to a taller front court in 2022-23. 

JMU’s men’s basketball team is now bigger — but not necessarily slower. 

The Dukes brought in two players for the 2022-23 campaign who are taller than anyone from the previous season’s roster. Graduate transfer Mezie Offurum comes to Harrisonburg via Mount St. Mary’s and stands at 6-foot-8; freshman Jerrell Robinson from DeMatha Catholic (Md.) has Offurum by an inch. Last year, JMU’s height capped at 6-foot-7 with forwards graduate Alonzo Sule and redshirt sophomore Justin Amadi. 

Still, head coach Mark Byington said the added bigs won’t hinder his up-tempo system. He thinks his offense can go even faster. 

“If you watch Mezie run, I mean, he’s a great runner,” Byington said at a post-practice media availability June 28. “We're probably going to be top 30, top 40 in the country in pace for play if we’re playing the right way.”  

JMU was 87th in the NCAA last season in adjusted tempo, or pace of play, according to kenpom.com, a website that crunches advanced college basketball analytics. Adjusted tempo is calculated by a team’s number of possessions per 40 minutes — the length of a game — in context of how fast or slow its opponent plays. JMU adjusted tempo was 68.8 possessions per game in 2021-22, 4.8 fewer than first-place St. Johns and 1-1.5 fewer than the range Byington hopes for this season. 

Byington said JMU had to slow down its pace and deploy zone defense to keep players fresh at times last season; JMU played games with as few as seven players in the rotation following a ravaging injury bug and a 29-day mid-year COVID-19 pause. If the roster stays deep this year, he said, he wants to take advantage of that — pushing the pace is something his “guys like doing.” 

Offurum, who Byington called “probably the most athletic player on the team,” said the coach’s fast-paced MO enticed him to transfer to JMU after averaging 11.4 points and 5 rebounds per game in his final year at Mount Saint Mary’s. The Mountaineers’ adjusted tempo last season was 63.3, 341st out of 358 teams. 

“My natural game is to get out, use my athleticism and just be all over the floor and be all over the court,” Offurum said. “That style of play, up tempo, I think, suits me.”

South Dakota State transfer guard Noah Friedel is in the same boat: While saying that shooting is his strong suit — he shot 39.6% from 3-point land in 17 games as a Jackrabbit last season — playing fast up and down the court, he said, impacted his decision to come to JMU. 

JMU’s backcourt will also see redshirt sophomore guard Terell Strickland back in the mix following a 2021-22 campaign hampered by two injuries, eventually causing the disruptive defender to sit the final 12 games. He sees a much deeper team this summer — 13 players can contribute, he said — than what he watched from the sidelines last season. 

It’s not just the front court that’s taller, Strickland said — it’s now only him and redshirt senior guard Vado Morse in the “6-foot club.” Freshman combo guard Brycen Blaine joins the backcourt at 6-foot-5, which already has 6-foot-6 wing Terrance Edwards — who dropped a career-high 29 points in the Feb. 26 season finale loss versus Towson — and 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Tyree Ihenacho, who saw action at both point and off-ball guard and led the team in assists and rebounds for the final nine games after suffering three separate injuries and missing a 54-day stretch last season. 

Still, it’s only the summer, Byington warned. He said the players will decide how deep the 2022-23 Dukes go, and he doesn’t worry about the rotation this early. 

Those players may already be making the decision easy for their up-tempo coach. 

“We’ll run bodies in and out; everybody loves to run … Everybody’s long,” Strickland said. “I know from what I've heard in the Sun Belt, that's what it is: a whole bunch of athletic, long, tall, strong guys. So, we'll compete.”

Contact Grant Johnson at breezesports@gmail.com. For more men’s basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.