In their last game before exam break, the 3rd ranked Virginia Cavaliers host the James Madison Dukes on Tuesday night. Tipoff is scheduled for 8:00 PM Eastern at John Paul Jones Arena, televised on ACC Network.
This is JMU’s first year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference, after leaving the Colonial Athletic Association. Head Coach Mark Byington’s team returns 80% of its scoring from last season, the highlight of which was an early December upset over Virginia in Harrisonburg. He’s added a pair of really good transfers to the mix. They’re off to a great start, leading the nation at 93.3 points per game.
The Dukes enter with a 7-2 record. UNC beat them 80-64 in Chapel Hill, and Valparaiso recently knocked them off in a neutral-site game. Their best win was over South Dakota State. It’s the margins of victory that have been impressive, all by at least 17 points. The early season resume is good enough to put them at number 40 in the NCAA’s newly released NET rankings.
They have an experienced backcourt. Point guard Vado Morse (12.0 PPG), in his fifth season, has scored over 1500 career points. Sixth-year senior Takal Molson (12.6 PPG) is their best overall scorer. He’s been limited lately while recovering from an illness, but should be back to form by Tuesday. And their early season breakout player has been 6’6” junior Terrence Edwards (12.3 PPG). An aggressive attacking player, they like to run offense through him.
South Dakota State transfer guard Noah Freidel (9.8 PPG) comes in to shoot, and he’s not shy about it. While it’s a good three-point shooting team, currently 7th best in the nation at 42.2%, Freidel and Morse are the only two high-volume shooters. Freshman point guard Xavier Brown (4.4 PPG) from Williamsburg has provided quality minutes off the bench too.
They’ll rotate four players up front, all listed at either 6’7” or 6’8”. Mount St. Mary’s transfer Mezie Offurum (11.0 PPG), another super senior, is the best of the group. He’s scored in double-figures in eight straight. Junior Justin Amadi (7.4 PPG) is the only player in the rotation who isn’t a three-point threat. Senior Julien Wooden (9.4 PPG) from Roanoke has increased his production despite playing less this season. And senior Alonzo Sule (8.2 PPG) brings energy and athleticism, particularly good on the offensive glass.
Clash of Styles
JMU loves to get out in transition. They’re very aggressive in seeking those opportunities, even forcing the issue without favorable numbers. It’s a huge part of what they do. Their defense is geared toward creating turnovers. We’ll see a full-court zone press at times, as well as some trapping action within the halfcourt. They’ll push the ball after every miss too. You just can’t let your guard down against them.
Transition defense is a tenet of Bennett-Ball. No one has done it better over the years. But JMU will test that more than anyone on Virginia’s schedule. It’s not a coincidence that JMU’s worst performance came when Valparaiso kept it mostly a halfcourt game. That’s the only time they’ve been held under a 70-possession pace, a number UVA games rarely reach.
Small Ball Dukes
The Dukes don’t have anyone you could call a center in their rotation. Justin Amadi and Alonzo Sule, both listed at 6 ‘7”, split time in that spot. Their roster construction fits their style of play. All four of their frontcourt players are good athletes who run the floor well, and all but Amadi are perimeter threats too.
Virginia’s Kadin Shedrick will have a substantial size advantage. But he’ll also be challenged to defend on the perimeter. In both of JMU’s losses, opposing big men really hurt them. This probably isn’t going to be a Francisco Caffaro kind of game. Expect a heavy dose of Virginia’s own small-ball look with Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas together up front. And possibly Ryan Dunn shuffled down to the 4-spot at times.
Welcome Back Calvin
Former Virginia guard Calvin Baker (2007-10) is now a member of the JMU coaching staff. He was a key contributor at the end of the Dave Leitao era, then helped bridge the gap while playing his final season under Coach Bennett.
And JMU Head Coach Mark Byington is a Virginia alum. He earned a master’s degree from UVA while serving as a graduate manager from 1999-01. Then later, he joined Pete Gillen’s staff for the 2004-05 season.
This is Virginia’s last game before exam break. They’ll have 11 days until the next game, a showdown with top-ranked Houston at JPJ. It’s good timing for a break too. The Hoos are a little beat up. Reece Beekman clearly hasn’t been 100% since turning his ankle at Michigan. Kadin Shedrick keeps getting hit in the face. And Armaan Franklin and Isaac McKneely both took hard falls against Florida State.
Beekman’s situation is the headline obviously. They’re not the same team without him operating at full strength. This seems like a game they need to get through, find a way to win, then use the time off to heal up. And as coaches head out recruiting over the break, it’s always a whole lot better feeling after a win.
(Featured Image Credit: Matt Riley/UVA Athletics)