Out of JMU men’s basketball’s returning players this season, no other Duke had more points, rebounds, assists or steals than senior guard Matt Lewis. When JMU was projected to finish second to last in the conference and Lewis was picked as the preseason player of the year, it was entirely reasonable that by late February, JMU could be the Matt Lewis show. An NCAA Tournament appearance was a dream.
Suffice to say, things are different. With a new coach, new arena and what seems to be an entirely new group of players, the Dukes are playing well; they’re 13-6 (8-2 CAA) and had a seven-game winning streak that launched them to the No. 1 seed in the upcoming CAA Tournament.
“Now [that] the regular season is over, I want them to feel great about what they accomplished,” head coach Mark Byington said. “From where they were picked, to I know they finished first, you know, I want the guys to be proud of their effort.”
One reason JMU is having success this season is because of its depth. Lewis was hurt in JMU’s battle versus preseason champion Hofstra and didn’t play in the second half.
Instead of folding, the Dukes turned to the other players for support and got the win. Junior guard Vado Morse, a transfer from Mount St. Mary’s, scored 14 points in the second half. The bench scored 36 points in the game, and the team made 15 second-half free throws to keep the Pride at bay.
JMU announced before the Drexel game that Lewis will miss the rest of the season because of the injury he suffered. Byington said that playing without other key players earlier in the season makes it easier to compensate for Lewis’ absence.
“I think one of the benefits all year is that we had some depth,” Byington said. “We played without different guys throughout the year … and I think guys are excited about the opportunity to play, they’re trying to play the right way, and they’re team first.”
Junior guard Jalen Hodge is a spark off the bench for the Dukes. The University of Louisiana Monroe transfer provided a 3-point option for JMU among the reserves — he’s made 21 3-pointers on the season and is shooting the three at a 35% clip. In the game versus Drexel on Feb. 26, Hodge made four 3-pointers in an attempt to bring the Dukes back, but JMU came up short. He said that having a strong bench benefits the rest of the team.
“Nobody really sees themselves coming off the bench, but we provide an opportunity to be an energizer around the 16, 15-minute mark and kinda bring the juice back to the guys,” Hodge said. “We pride ourselves on coming off the bench and bringing that kind of effort and second punch.”
Another player who’s stepped up is senior forward Zach Jacobs. From Richmond, Virginia, Jacobs played under 15 minutes per game this season, but they’ve been crucial. In JMU’s 78-63 victory over Towson on Jan. 27, Jacobs only played in 18 minutes but scored six points and pulled down a team-high eight rebounds. Jacobs said being willing to come off the bench is key to doing well.
“Whatever the coach asks me to do and ... whatever they feel is best for the team, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities,” Jacobs said.
Playing time varies when coming off the bench. In Hodge’s 14 games as a reserve, his minutes fluctuated, going as low as four minutes versus Towson and reaching as high as 26 minutes versus Drexel. Hodge said he doesn’t care how much he plays as long as he plays at a high level.
“I can’t really worry about my minutes — it’s more about going out there and playing hard,” Hodge said. “It’s big that we’re going out there focusing on each possession and playing our hardest.”
This depth from its players gives JMU several offensive weapons. Lewis scored at least 10 points in all but one game this year — Morse, sophomore forward Julien Wooden and freshman forward Justin Amadi each hit at least 10 points a combined 29 times.
In nine games, JMU’s had at least four players score at least 10 points in a game, with a high of six players in the season opener against Limestone. Byington said that having several weapons will help as JMU tries to make a deep run in the CAA Tournament.
“Everyone knows you have to win three games in three days, so you need to be able to go eight, nine, 10 deep at the very least,” Byington said. “That’s been a positive for us recently and throughout the year.”
Back in November, nobody expected the Dukes to be a serious threat in the CAA. Now, with a multifaceted and deep roster, an appearance in March Madness is no longer a dream.
Contact Joshua Gingrich firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.