One by one, redshirt senior guard Vado Morse talked Oct. 12 about each newcomer in a JMU uniform this year. He spoke about the 3-point range that redshirt junior transfer guard Noah Freidel brings to the team, then paused.
Morse covered all the new players. But another teammate was on his mind, too.
“Somebody else I want to talk about is Terrence.”
Redshirt sophomore guard Terrence Edwards, coming off a season in which he averaged 9.1 points per game and scored 27 in the regular season finale, surprised Morse with his growth as a player in the preseason. Morse was most taken aback by something that had nothing to do with on-court talent, though.
Morse complained about a missed foul call in an early October practice. It messed with him mentally, he said, and he let it show on back-to-back possessions by moving sluggishly going down the court.
Edwards had enough. He called out his roommate of three years — Morse is one of five players who’s played under head coach Mark Byington for three years, along with Edwards — someone who’s “so close” with Edwards off the court.
Edwards said he’s never going to let Morse come into practice and “float around.” He said he sees the potential in Morse, so on his watch, he won’t let him give half effort.
Morse, who said he’s trying to become an “everyday guy,” said he appreciated Edwards’ accountability, which came to the tune of, “C’mon, V! Step it up. We need you.”
“That’s just huge for the team, and that just shows he’s maturing,” Morse said of Edwards. “We’re a team. I’m gonna accept what he’s telling me. I’m not gonna argue back and forth … I live with him, like, I’ve been messing with him since I’ve been here. That’s my brother.”
The camaraderie and maturity is a new standard for JMU men’s hoops, built off a 15-14 (6-12 CAA) year where the whole kitchen sink got thrown at them — the second-longest COVID-19 pause in the country, multiple season-ending injuries and a postseason tournament ban before the season commenced.
Now, Edwards said, players are practicing with an intensity that hasn’t been there before. They no longer take days for granted after missing nearly one month of games last season due to the pandemic or after losing the last game of the season by 36 points, Edwards said, and having no chance to get the bad taste out of their mouths in the CAA tournament.
“We’re diving for loose balls in practice and stuff like that — like that matters,” Edwards said. “We wasn’t diving for loose balls in practice last year. I can’t say that. I don’t remember a time where I got on the floor in practice last year.”
Edwards is 6-foot-6 but handles the ball and can facilitate the offense akin to 6-foot Morse. He started at point guard in JMU’s opener Monday versus Valley Forge; Morse came off the bench, which didn’t happen once last year. Byington said he’s mixing and matching lineups early in the year, as some players have missed reps in practice due to the flu.
The two guards join redshirt junior forward Julien Wooden and redshirt sophomores forward Justin Amadi and guard Terell Strickland as the first third-year players Byington’s had since arriving at JMU before the 2020-21 season. Amadi and Wooden combined for 53 of 58 possible starts in 2021-22; Amadi started against Valley Forge on Monday and Wooden came off the bench. Strickland is out for a couple of weeks with a hand injury, Byington said after the Valley Forge game; he also missed the back half of last season with an injury but played 18.8 minutes per game prior to it.
“Just being out, just watching how the season last year finished, it just made me hungry. I know it made a lot of other guys on our team hungry to make an impact this year, especially during the new conference,” Strickland said. “We got to set it off from the jump.”
Over the summer, Byington said he noticed there’s more of a business approach and maturity on the roster. He said his team could make more adjustments in practice earlier in the season than usual, driven by the three-year players and other veterans like graduate forward Alonzo Sule, who joined the Dukes last season.
Sule said the returning roster has been hardened by everything it took to get through last season — which, on top of the ban and pandemic’s turmoil, saw JMU play 17 games decided by 10 points or less. JMU started 6-1 in such games but ended 3-7.
“I definitely think that made us tougher, more resilient because we were hit with adversity,” Sule said. “So now, this group, we’ve had that fire in the offseason to really push, especially since we can compete in this tournament, so now we got a chance to compete. So now guys are more motivated, more hungry, like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s make sure, let them know that last year was a fluke and this year, you know, we’re here ready to go.’”
In the games JMU dropped last year, there are three that most players said stung the most: both UNCW games — JMU lost the first one at home on a buzzer-beater Jan. 20 and the second on the road again by one point in overtime Feb. 18 — and the Feb. 26 Towson game, which JMU lost 95-59. Morse said he tries to keep the losses in the past and move on, but that the Towson loss especially was “embarrassing.”
For redshirt sophomore forward Julien Wooden, he said he tries to bottle up the losses and use them as motivation because they stick with him. Among the third-year Dukes, multiple players pointed to Wooden as someone poised for a big step up this year — Sule said during one practice in the preseason, Byington told Wooden his “smartness is increasing.”
It comes with time — the JMU veterans have seen more basketball, the game is slowing down and rotations on defense feel more seamless over the years, Wooden said. But the biggest difference for the group in 2022-23, Edwards said, is there’s simply a different feeling this year.
He couldn’t put a pin on it exactly. Players are older, more connected and mature, but Edwards thinks much of the drive derives from how last season ended.
He dropped his career high in the Towson loss but he said it didn’t matter to him. Losing the game “hurt so bad” because JMU couldn’t avenge it in the postseason tournament.
“That loss still sticks with us, and that’s why we come in here every day and we work hard just because of that game,” Edwards said. “Like, we got blown out in front of our home crowd. We can’t wait for the season to start to show everybody we’ve been working. Like, y’all have to worry about nothing like that ever happening again.”