Looking Forward: James Madison

Ron Curry will win CAA Player of the Year in March. Well, now that we’re officially on the record, we can begin this honorary preview of James Madison University’s ’15-‘16 basketball season, which kicks off tomorrow night in Richmond.

The Dukes will set out to avenge a disappointing end to a ‘14-‘15 campaign that included a terrible exit in the Second Round of the CAA Tournament. That final game left a sour taste in my mouth.

On a personal note, that was the last JMU game I’d ever cover. I was the beat writer for The Breeze from ’11-’15. I witnessed slews of terrible losses, but that 74-57 loss to Hofstra inside Royal Farms Arena was one of the worst. JMU played with little heart, and was manhandled by an extremely physical Pride roster.

Curry sat in the pressroom that afternoon with his sweatshirt hood draped over his head. It was at that moment I decided he would bounce back strong and bring home Player of the Year honors. As one of only two seniors on this year’s roster, I enlist full faith in his decision making and leadership. I expect to see his 13.9 points per game average blow past 15 this year.

Curry’s been a quiet guy since his freshman year, but now knows when he has to speak up. If you recall, that freshman class included Andre Nation (officially dismissed from the team in January) and Charles Cooke (transferred to Dayton). They concluded their freshmen year playing in front of 10,000+ in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

That trio has since dissipated, leaving a reserved Curry at the forefront of an always young JMU team. Over the years, I often asked Curry about his leadership role. He admitted he didn’t like having to speak up, but understood the importance. He learned under Devon Moore, his predecessor. Moore was also reserved off the court, saving all his chatter for game time.

This is Curry’s year to shine. He needs to be selfish, and more so needs to be vocal. I foresee times of frustration, especially early on as he’ll be rallying to formulate chemistry with a few new faces in the mix, but it can be done.

For the Dukes to be successful, it has to be done.

I’ll bring to light one roster change that may go unnoticed, but could be of big impact for the Dukes. By comparing last year’s roster to this one, I noticed junior Jackson Kent is listed at 200 pounds, 15 more than the 185 he was listed at this time last season.

If this is true (and we all know rosters may be misleading), Kent with significant bulking could lead to prominent gains on both sides of the ball. In the two years I covered Kent, perhaps the biggest thing I watched him develop was his physicality with opposing players.

Without significant roster turnover, the Dukes head into this season still undersized. It was a tremendous hindrance in ‘14-’15, as they were constantly outrebounded night after night. Getting boards any way possible will be crucial for this club. This registers as an even larger point with the meniscus injury recently suffered by junior Yohanny Dalembert. The 6’8” forward can hang with the best in the league down low, but will miss 2-4 weeks with this injury.

Head coach Matt Brady has never had much luck in the injury realm. He’s always used it as somewhat of crutch with the media, but sometimes you have to give into the guy and actually just buy what he’s selling. Brady’s had terrible luck with injuries. Yes, it doesn’t need to become an excuse, but it is an unfortunate trend. Dalembert’s doesn’t help in the slightest, but it should be pretty juvenile if he can rest and rejoin the team before Christmas and more importantly, conference play.

In his sophomore season, Dalembert averaged just over 11 points and six rebounds per game. He’s continually become more comfortable scoring with his back to the basket. Dalembert averaged just over 25 minutes per contest, and we should see that number rise this season as he’ll once again be the go-to guy down low for Curry and the backcourt.

On the nonconference front, JMU will have the luxury of playing 10 home games throughout the course of late fall and early winter. It’s a slate Brady has been waiting for, as the recent years have seen JMU on the road basically until after Christmas. This treat is capped by a six-game December home stand which includes a visit from George Mason on December 12th, easily the highlight of the non-conference schedule harkening back to their old CAA rivalry.

With an at-large bid likely out of reach for the Dukes or anyone within the CAA, the non-conference schedule is the test ride, and the time to hammer out the kinks. It’s the time to get through a couple of minor early-season injuries and get over the hump into CAA play, which begins December 31st against College of Charleston.

Two players to watch will be sophomore Joey McLean and redshirt junior Devontae Morgan. McLean has the potential to be deadly on the offensive front, but has to seamlessly find a way to best utilize his small stature (6’0”, 160 pounds) wisely. Morgan redshirted last year after transferring from Butler University. He has a reputation as a great defender, and his implementation into the backcourt could be a hearty addition. Behind Curry and Dalembert, these two should get as much run as anyone on the team. While Morgan could go through some growing pains early, he too could end up on an All-CAA Team come March.

With some mistakes in his past, junior Tom Vodanovich also looks to improve in this upcoming campaign. He’s the most aggressive and physical player on the roster. Vodanovich will need to bump his four rebounds per game up this season and ideally contribute some more points, after averaging 4.7 over his first two years. Look for this to happen in the trenches and ideally on offensive rebounds.

The Pride and the Dukes make up the top two teams in the CAA Preseason Poll. This time of year pays in predictions, and with continued player development and little luck in the injury department, JMU could certainly earn a meaningful rematch in March.

— Stephen Proffitt (@JStheProffitt)

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