It’s no secret that this season is a crucial one for the imminent future of JMU men’s basketball.
Head coach Louis Rowe is still searching for his first winning record in his fourth season as the Dukes’ leader, the team’s riding out its final season in the Convocation Center and, for the first time since the 2015-16 season, JMU was picked to finish in the top-four in the 2019-20 Preseason Poll. In other words, ever since Rowe was appointed as head coach, people are starting to take notice of the Dukes’ progress, and the expectations have been set higher.
With a record of 34-64, Rowe’s overall standing doesn’t look great at first glance. But season-by-season results show progress within the program. In the first season with players he recruited and didn’t inherit from former head coach Matt Brady, JMU went 10-22. The theme of that season was young players like then-freshmen guards Darius Banks and Matt Lewis making a statement that they’d be a catalyst in a program that’s turning around.
The following season saw similar growing pains as the one before it. Games that should’ve been won by the Dukes slipped out of their hands, and any chances they had to create momentum and crack the top-four slipped by. However, there were numerous positives, such as Banks and Lewis continuing their development; now-junior forward Dwight Wilson improving in minutes, points and rebounds; and current sophomore guard Deshon Parker breaking out as a solid point guard.
Matt Lewis comes up clutch once again. pic.twitter.com/QTwDMhO7fH— Breeze Sports (@TheBreezeSports) March 9, 2019
Beyond the individual development it saw last season, the team achieved something JMU hadn’t since 2013: a CAA tournament game victory. Lewis’ game-winner over Towson in the 2018 edition of the tournament sent the Dukes to the quarterfinals, where they fell to No. 1 seed Hofstra.
Now, JMU is in a position to establish itself as a conference power. Because many of the league’s stars graduated or were drafted to the NBA, the CAA is wide open. For the Dukes, what’s important in their quest to make a run for the title is learning from last season and relying on a veteran presence.
“We want to be one of the top defensive teams in this league,” Rowe said. “We looked at our personnel and said, ‘Are there things that need to change as far as some of coverages, some of our principles on ball screens,' and things like that. We actually brought in guys that understood that and could coach that and had been in systems like that, and it’s really helped with the transition.”
Rowe pointed out that people said the Dukes’ offense struggled last season, but he feels the defense is a critical aspect of the team’s game that needs to improve this year. He stated that he feels confident in the team’s depth, making it easier to call on bench guys to make big plays.
JMU finished ninth in the CAA in scoring offense (70.4) but found itself in the top-five in 3-point field goal percentage (36.3), rebounding offense (34), blocked shots per game (3.1) and steals per game (6.4). On top of the team improving its defense, those areas it found success in can't only be replicated but improved in the upcoming campaign.
This season, the Dukes will have a different look. The offensive and defensive schemes have changed to match an up-tempo style of play. On defense, the team has worked on icing ball screens instead of hedging them. With that, the team will hope to create turnovers and then go on fast breaks that catch defenses off guard. JMU wants to spread the floor and create open shots while also using the post to pick apart a stretched-out defense.
Part of the preparation for that style of play is conditioning. Both Banks and Wilson said getting conditioned was a primary focus in the offseason, and both noted how important it was to have the ability to make teams tired down the stretch. But, a tenacious defense means the opportunity to get players in foul trouble. If JMU can keep its core players out of foul trouble, it’ll be on the right road to success.
Rowe said the team, like fans, has set the bar to win a CAA title. It doesn’t listen to preseason polls or what other people say about it, but it knows what it’s capable of and seeks to achieve whatever it sets out to do.
JMU will have plenty of opportunities to build a solid resume heading into its conference slate. Following its regular-season opener against Charlotte, the Dukes will make a trip to the defending national champion: Virginia. From there, it’ll face various challenges, including Old Dominion, who made a 2019 NCAA Tournament appearance before bowing out to Purdue.
It’s games like Virginia and ODU that present JMU the opportunity to solidify itself as a contender. Those games will serve as benchmarks, but for a hungry Dukes team, nothing will change the fact that winning a conference championship is the endgame.
“That's our goal. That's the standard,” Banks said. “Everybody wants to get to a CAA championship. So, I think us coming onto the court and just competing every day and giving all we got, that's what our standard is.”
Lewis said he agrees with Banks. The team’s first priority is to end the season at the top. However, the Woodbridge, Virginia, native said consistency is a huge key if JMU wants to win.
“Our team expectations — of course, to finish within the top, the top polls in the CAA — but the main thing is just to be consistent. Last year, we had a lot of problems with consistency. We had a few big wins: Charleston, Hofstra, and then we had games like Elon we blew at home. Just being able to be consistent as a team — compare the effort all throughout each game — is going to be the biggest part.”
It hasn’t been a perfect few seasons for JMU men’s basketball, but Rowe’s continuing process of shifting the program toward the right direction is still continuing. With the players buying into their coach’s mission and a tough mentality, the Dukes are set to battle through a season that’ll contain the twists and turns that college basketball presents.
“I want these guys to win because I think they deserve it. I want this school to win because I think it’s time. I love these kids, and I know they work hard for me every day,” Rowe said.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more men’s basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.