JMU men’s basketball offers reasons for optimism

JMU men’s basketball is 7-18. The Dukes lose 75 percent of their 2017-18 conference games. They rank dead last in the CAA in field goal percentage. Under second-year head coach Louis Rowe, JMU has won just 17 times in 58 games. To contrast, second-year women’s head coach Sean O’Regan holds nearly the opposite record, going 40-17 in 57 games. Oh, and second-year head football coach Mike Houston is a ho-hum 28-2 in 30 games with two national title appearances and a massive ring on his finger. The JMU men’s basketball program, on the other hand, finds itself headed down a black hole to basketball irrelevancy, right? Wrong.

I’m here to tell you why the team with a winning percentage (.280) worse than the batting average of nine 2017 JMU baseball Dukes has itself positioned for NCAA Tournament success within the next 5-10 years.

Let’s start with the roster. A year ago, JMU marched to a miserable 10-23 season despite a roster with seven seniors that won 21 games the year prior. The Dukes took a step back in 2016-17, but they’ve reloaded with a group of recruits that fit Rowe’s philosophy. The former JMU standout wants a team filled with athletes. He wants shooters, ball handlers and lockdown defenders. Well, he’s getting closer.

Freshmen Matt Lewis, Darius Banks and Greg Jones offer athleticism and speed at the guard and wing positions, while Zach Jacobs and Dwight Wilson offer size and strength at the forward positions. The five, which could very well be the team’s starting five in two years, currently combines for 30.1 points and 16.1 rebounds per game with 22.3 of those points and 7.7 of the rebounds coming from Lewis and Banks. The other three all average 12 or fewer minutes per game, but have shown flashes of brilliance in limited action.

Now, let’s add in some of the older guys. Redshirt junior Stuckey Mosley’s lefty jumper puts a smile on even James Harden’s face and has the Toledo transfer averaging exactly 20 points per game through 25 contests — the second best mark in the CAA. Should Mosley finish the season averaging over 20 per game, he’ll be the first Duke to accomplish the feat since Denzel Bowles in 2009-10.

Sprinkle in junior forward Develle Phillips in the low post, and the Dukes begin to look formidable. Phillips gives JMU a polished low post scorer with a field-goal percentage of 58.5 percent, which ranks higher than UNCW’s Devontae Cacok, who last year had the highest field goal percentage in the history of college basketball. Combine Mosley and Phillips with glue guys like Joey McLean (when healthy) and Ramone Snowden, and the Dukes’ lineup looks nice.

When nitpicking the cast of characters, consider this: In Saturday’s 79-73 win over Towson, all 79 points came from players slated to be on JMU’s 2018-19 roster. Of the team’s 35 rebounds, 29 came from players returning to the Dukes and 13 of the 14 assists came from returners, including nine from Banks and Lewis. There’s no talent shortage in Harrisonburg.

Possessing talent is one thing, but developing talent means everything when it comes to being a successful college basketball coach at the mid-major level. Very rarely, if ever, will a mid-major snag a one-and-done player or even a player capable of leaving early for the NBA Draft, which makes talent development of the utmost importance. Using last year as a case study, I’ll dive into Rowe’s development of Jackson Kent.

Coming into last season, Kent shied away from the contact. Despite his athleticism and 6-foot-7-inch frame, he settled for jumpers, taking 54 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in his first three seasons as a Duke. Last season, under Rowe, Kent took 343 shots. Of those 343 looks, 153 of them (44.6 percent) were from 3-point land. For the first time in his career, Kent attacked the rim.

He attempted 119 free throws after failing to eclipse 82 in a single season under Brady. Kent, a solid free-throw shooter throughout his career, drilled 101 of his 119 attempts from the charity stripe. Rowe understood how to use Kent, who posted career highs in points (14), rebounds (4.4) and assists (2.3) per game last season. Instead of allowing Kent to settle for long jumpers, Rowe insisted Kent work as a point forward and aggressively attack the basket. It worked.

I’m not saying Rowe is the next coming of Coach K, but he instills confidence in his players and understands that his guys need to play aggressively. If Rowe can turn Kent into an aggressor, imagine what he can do with guys like Darius Banks and Matt Lewis over a four-year span.

Rowe’s talent development is worth noting, but where he really stands out is as a recruiter. JMU’s 2012-13 team remains one of the program’s best in recent memory and featured standout freshmen Ron Curry, Charles Cooke and Andre Nation. Rowe played a role in recruiting the trio in his role as an assistant coach for the Dukes from 2010-12. Curry went on to score 1,550 career points for JMU. Cooke transferred to Dayton, where he scored 957 points in two seasons with the Flyers. Nation showed flashes of greatness, but struggled with off the court issues and eventually left the program.

While the trio didn’t work out for JMU, Rowe put together a recruiting class with three superstar caliber players, including one of the more decorated scorers in program history in Curry. Add in the fact that Rowe will finally be able to tout a venue worthy of a college basketball program (looking at you, Union Bank & Trust Center) to future recruits, and the future of JMU men’s basketball isn’t looking so bleak after all.

JMU men’s basketball is 7-18, but the Dukes have a roster filled with returning talent, including the best freshmen class since 2012-13. 

The Dukes lose 75 percent of their 2017-18 conference games, but Rowe develops talent at a higher level than the program has seen in years.

They rank dead last in the CAA in field goal percentage, but Develle Phillips works to change that.

Under second-year head coach Louis Rowe, JMU has won just 17 times in 58 games, but the best is yet to come.


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