RICHMOND, Va. – Perhaps it’s amazing that James Madison had any fight in the first place on Friday. A team torn apart by injuries, the Dukes started off Friday’s first round game well, but once they got behind it seemed like their will was taken away from them. Given what they’ve been through this season, it’s hard to blame them as their season ended with a 70-59 loss to UNCW in the first round of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.
“This season hasn’t been the season that we wanted,” senior guard Humpty Hitchens said in what was surely an understatement.
The Dukes came into the season as an interesting team to project. There was not a lack of talent, and it wasn’t a young team. This was a team that had the personnel to be a top-four team in the CAA, but there were questions about the intangibles. Those questions went away, but injuries took over in a big way. Head coach Matt Brady says he can’t remember a season like it in 25 years of coaching.
How bad has the injury situation been? The best answer to that is to ask how much time you have. The somewhat brief version: Rayshawn Goins is redshirting due to a torn labrum suffered in preseason practice, Julius Wells’ season ended in January after complications from a viral infection, and Hitchens missed two games in February due to a sprained shoulder. That’s three starters right there. Add in Andrey Semenov playing through a wrist injury, Devon Moore a knee injury, preseason redshirt candidate Alioune Diouf dealing with back pain in much of February, A.J. Davis playing through a rib injury and Christian Pierce breaking his nose, and you get the picture. Though none of the latter group missed any games, they have been significantly less than 100 percent at varying points in the season.
As if that’s not bad enough, the injury bug hit the coaching staff. Assistant Lou Rowe punctured his lung in December and couldn’t travel with the team at times or actively participate in practice. Then on February 16, head coach Matt Brady was participating in practice and ruptured his Achilles tendon. He coached Friday’s game in a walking boot and with crutches.
The injuries naturally took a toll in games, but also in practice. In fact, it was a lack of practice bodies that led Brady to be on the floor when he got hurt, and he said they often practiced over the last month with two managers. There’s already a difference between practice speed and game speed, but this only added to it.
“The real challenging thing that the public doesn’t see, and even basketball people don’t see unless you’re in the game coaching the game, is when you can’t practice,” said Brady. “When you’re practicing against a 46-year-old coach, it’s not the same thing.”
Friday’s game started well enough. James Madison was clicking on all cylinders in the first few minutes and ran out to a 13-4 lead before the first media timeout. They ran great offense, reading the defense well with a couple of backdoor cuts and layups mixed in with three-pointers. But before the half was out, UNCW had turned the tables and led by nine, and early in the second half it looked like the Dukes were done as the lead grew to 23 at one point.
Brady felt that if one or two Dukes played well, they might have pulled this game out. In some ways, it was a fitting end to the season for a team that was thrown more than many teams could handle in the way of injuries.
“We didn’t play well,” said Brady. “For the first time all year, we didn’t have a single guy play well in the game. Even through all the adversity we faced all year, typically we would have one or two guys play really solid. Tonight, we didn’t, and I feel like if we had two guys play close to their level, this could have been a different game.”
In many ways, it could have been a different season. And because of that, the fact that it even was a ballgame said a lot about how this team didn’t quit.