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Sports may be on pause for the time being, but that didn’t prevent JMU from finding its next man to lead men’s basketball. 

On Friday, JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne appointed Mark Byington as the Dukes’ next head coach. It marked the end of a nearly two-week search, one that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic that made it a different experience for Bourne and Collegiate Sports Associates. 

But, in the midst of the pandemic, the roadblocks don’t end for Byington and JMU. Now in the driver’s seat of one of the programs set to open the Atlantic Union Bank Center, the former Georgia Southern head coach has to focus on recruiting for the upcoming season and years to come. 

He also has to convince the current players to stay with the Dukes instead of seeking a transfer elsewhere, as junior guard Darius Banks and junior forward Dwight Wilson have already announced they’ve entered their names in the transfer portal. 

Normally, incoming coaches have the opportunity to meet face to face with players on campus, but with JMU switching to online classes for the rest of the semester and encouraging students not to return to Harrisonburg, it makes Byington’s first few weeks more challenging. 

“Right now, my first job is to re-recruit the guys on the team,” Byington said in a teleconference. “There’s a period right now — and I believe I’m correct on this — where the NCAA says no on-campus or off-campus recruiting until April 15, so that does hamper a lot of things like bringing guys, showing them the arena, showing them the campus.”

Byington said he talked to every player on the current roster and will try to have more conversations with the athletes. He noted that he’d like to visit some of the players, but health precautions because of the coronavirus could prevent him from doing so. 

Once he can assemble his team and begin practice, Byington said he will start to lay out the blueprint to his playing style. He said he takes a deep look at statistics and finds matchups to exploit in each scouting report while also figuring out what areas of the court give the Dukes higher quality shots. 

On offense, Byington likes to have athletes running the floor. He said he wants players who are interchangeable, which shows how important depth is to the Salem, Virginia, native. For defense, he said he’ll try to mix things up, taking it on a team-by-team basis and implementing tactics depending on what the opponent’s offense looks like. 

“After studying the program at James Madison from last year, I think there’s a lot of talented offensive players,” Byington said. “But, our biggest improvement is going to be on defense. We’re going to be fully committed on that, and that’s going to be the fastest way we can move ourselves up the CAA rankings.”

Byington agreed to a six-year deal with the Dukes, meaning he’ll have the chance to bring in players that fit his style and develop them into seasoned veterans. He stressed the importance of having a solid recruiting presence in Virginia — emphasizing the talent in every area of the Commonwealth — but also noted his interest in Washington, D.C., Maryland, North Carolina and Ohio. 

He said his confidence in the school gives him faith as to how well he can recruit. Byington said he feels if he can simply get prospective athletes on campus, it’ll sell itself. He followed this by saying it’s one of the many aspects of JMU that made him feel like it was the right job for the next step in his career. 

“I don’t know if I can put it into words how excited I am,” Byington said. “It’s an excitement. I’m anxious, I want to get going, I really want to start practice tomorrow. I want to be around the guys. I want to teach them, I want to help them … It’s beyond excitement. That’s the best way I can put it.”

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.