BALTIMORE – Of the four teams that tied for first in the CAA, one of the more unlikely ones was James Madison. Next year, however, don’t be surprised if contention and something better than a Saturday exit from the tournament is expected from them.
The Dukes were already down several players from last season just to start, including the transfer of Charles Cooke. They were an inexperienced team, though perhaps not quite as much as last year. Things didn’t get better from there. Andre Nation, their most talented player, was dismissed from the program, robbing them of one of their most experienced players as well. Later, promising freshman Hari Hall missed the last month of the season due to injury.
But as is often the case, the dismissal of a player with off-court issues can help a team. Nation had been suspended three times prior to his dismissal. The personnel situation has nothing unknown at that point and one distraction is eliminated. Life went on for the Dukes, and it got better. Ron Curry became one of the conference’s best players. Yohanny Dalembert became the inside presence they needed him to become. The Dukes went 10-4 the rest of the way, generally winning the games they should win while going 0-6 against the other three teams that tied for first.
Even with that, however, it’s clear this team has room to grow further. There’s a lot of upside to be tapped, and this is a team with no seniors.
“I think in a game like this, we recognize, obviously, what we need to get better at,” said head coach Matt Brady.
And where that improvement needs to come is something that the experience they got this year will help with. Certainly, more skill development will help, but this team also lost games in a certain way. They weren’t tough enough, and that was something both coach and players talked about.
“We’ve lost three times in the last 40 days, and those three games were teams that really physically took it to us on every dribble, every pass, and they pressured everything we did,” said Brady. “We’re not where we need to be in a lot of ways, with experience handling those things.”
Hofstra did much the same thing to the Dukes on Saturday, and from there dictated the tempo. When Hofstra is able to run, other teams are in trouble, and the Dukes were on Saturday. James Madison shot just 37 percent from the field, while Hofstra shot 49 percent. The Dukes couldn’t win the possession battle enough to overcome that.
Now the question is if this team will get to play on and gain experience. As a team that figures to return a lot next year, they would certainly benefit greatly from added game experience. Brady said they are in conversations with the CBI and CIT, so they could be a possibility for them, and he figures his team will embrace such an opportunity.
With all of this team returning next year, there’s reason to believe this team can emerge as one of the preseason favorites in 2015-16. Brady and the team can come out of this knowing what has to happen between now and then. Acting to improve there will tell the story of whether this team really gets better next season or ends up being simply the same team on paper once more – and whether or not another Saturday exit from the tournament will be expected or an unpleasant surprise.