James Madison’s winter teams have picked up where the fall programs left off in their transition to the Sun Belt Conference — by winning.
Women’s basketball (17-3, 7-1), picked to finish sixth in the preseason by league coaches, has won 14 of its last 15 and has already won three more games than last season, their last in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The men’s team (13-8, 4-4) is among the national leaders in scoring, bench scoring and turnovers forced and is fast approaching its 15-win total from a year ago.
That’s after a fall season in which the Dukes won the league volleyball championship and played in the championship games of the men’s and women’s soccer conference tournaments. They would have played for the football title after dispatching East Division champion Coastal Carolina 47-7 in their regular season finale but were ineligible in their first year at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“They definitely have hit the ground running and are certainly more than prepared for their kind of first year in the conference,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said.
Due to NCAA rules, every football program that moves up to the FBS is required to undergo a two-year transition period, during which time programs are ineligible to participate in postseason play.
In basketball, it helps to have attainable goals again this season, women’s coach Sean O’Regan said. Last season, both teams were banned by the CAA from the league’s tournament once they announced their plans to jump leagues, a crushing blow delivered early in the season.
“We have a chance to win a championship,” O’Regan said of this year’s team. “You know, that’s something that’s small, but in the end, I think it wore on our team a lot more than I even understood.”
The men fared marginally better after the decision last year, then endured a 29-day COVID-19 pause and substantial injuries.
The slight still burned, point guard Terrell Strickland said.
“It just gives us another chip on our shoulder and another thing to prove,” the redshirt sophomore said, “and we thrive off that.”
While the men score plenty (84.5 ppg, fifth nationally), both teams are having success because of a common attention to defense.
O’Regan’s mantra is defend, rebound, run, “in that order,” he said. “I think the first two have been a little bit more of the emphasis for us. I’ve been on their tails about caring about the defensive end. And I’ve been on them maybe even harder about the glass.”
The Dukes rank among the leaders nationally in rebound margin, field goal percentage defense, defensive rebounds per game and rebounds per game. Scoring leader Kiki Jefferson is among the leaders of the charge to prioritize stopping the other team.
“I think it’s easy to say defense wins championships, but honestly, you can make one shot and then get stops, and I think that’s what we’re doing right now,” she said. “I think our defense is leading our way because we take pride in our defense.”
So do the men.
“A lot of times our defense leads to offense,” men’s coach Mark Byington said, pointing to the team average of forcing almost 19 turnovers per game, sixth nationally. “A lot of those lead to offense.”
Byington also employs a liberal substitution strategy that sometimes sees seven or eight players in the game before the first media timeout and 10 or 11 getting extensive time. Ten players average close to 20 minutes, and no one averages as many as 27.
“Maybe the other team might have the best player, but we feel like there’s a good chance we might have (the best) three through 11 and so we want to have strength in numbers to try to wear people down,” he said.
His players have bought in, and they relish seeing that strategy take effect.
“We come in waves. … The last 10 minutes of every game, that’s our time because no team has the same freshness that we’ll have,” said Strickland, who averages almost 16 minutes.
Athletic director Jeff Bourne expects the school’s 8,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Center, opened in November 2020, to be a “game changer” in recruiting. The arena also houses academic support, strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports medicine resources.
“I think some exciting days are ahead of us,” Bourne said.
As the football rout of Coastal Carolina ended, “We Are the Champions” blared through Bridgeforth Stadium and the band and students celebrated on the field with the team.
James Madison might need to cue up that Queen tune again before too long.
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