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Guard Jalen Hodge dodges a defender against George Mason on Nov. 19. 

When JMU men’s basketball squared off with U.Va. on Nov. 10, 2019, the team was playing home games in the Convocation Center, and former head coach Lou Rowe had almost an entirely different roster. The Cavaliers, then the defending national champions, defeated the Dukes — who finished with a 9-21 (2-16 CAA) record — 65-34.

In the two years since, the men’s basketball Dukes Dukes (7-2), led by second-year head coach Mark Byington, have become one of the top teams in the CAA and are soon moving to the Sun Belt Conference with the rest of JMU Athletics. The Dukes’ biggest test of the season comes Tuesday night when they face U.Va. (6-3, 1-0 ACC) at the Atlantic Union Bank Center. 

“[Playing U.Va. is] a huge excitement, especially when they’re coming to play us at our spot,” redshirt junior guard Vado Morse said. “It’s a huge game, a lot of excitement and in front of a sold-out crowd.”

The only remaining Cavalier who played in the title game versus Texas Tech in U.Va.’s national title run is senior guard Kihei Clark. The 5-foot-10 California native brings speed and agility to U.Va.’s roster — a challenge for opposing offenses and defenses. ESPN’s Jay Bilas ranked Clark as one of the best defenders in the country — the Dukes need to be careful with the ball in order to win.

Even though this isn’t the same U.Va. team that went 66-6 (33-3 ACC) in the two-year stretch that ended in its national championship, the basic principles that have defined head coach Tony Bennett’s time in Charlottesville still remain. The Cavaliers have one of the slowest tempos in the country, and U.Va’s pack-line defense is effective — the Cavaliers have ranked in the top 10 in fewest points allowed per game every year starting in 2011-12, per Team Rankings.

“Virginia is an elite basketball program with an elite basketball coach — it’s been the most successful ACC program the last couple years,” Byington said to the media after the Eastern Mennonite game. “My main focus with our guys is that we got to get better — whoever’s coming, we’ve got to get better.”

U.Va.’s had an up-and-down start. The Cavaliers opened the season 1-2 with a victory over Radford sandwiched between a home loss to Navy and a 67-47 road loss to then-No. 15 Houston. Since, U.Va.’s gone 5-1 and is coming off a last-second victory over Pittsburgh on Friday.

Redshirt sophomore forward Julien Wooden is the only remaining Duke who played in the last JMU-U.Va. matchup. Wooden came off the bench, collecting two rebounds and an assist. 

“I remember how fast-paced the game was — people always say that U.Va. likes to play slow, but it seemed pretty fast-paced,” Wooden said. “If we just stick together and be a team, not have one guy try to play hero ball … I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.”

JMU’s played in a bunch of close games so far this season. All five of the Dukes’ Division I wins are separated by five points or less, and Morse said that experience will help JMU against U.Va.

“We’ve been there before, and we came out on top in most of those close games,” Morse said. “It’s given us the experience and that we can do it, no matter what the score is, and [it] gives us more confidence.”

Beating a U.Va. squad that started the year ranked and that some analysts had projected to finish in the top four in the ACC could help JMU get an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament or make the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). For Byington, it’s all about improving.

“Going against a great program, a great team, is going to challenge us,” Byington said. “We just want to be our best version of ourselves and try to keep getting better.”

JMU and U.Va. play at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday night — the game airs on the CBS Sports Network.

Contact Joshua Gingrich at gingrihj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.