Keeler: JMU hoops programs in good shape

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

James Madison University kicks off its men’s and women’s basketball seasons tonight, and both programs have reason to feel good about where they are at.

The JMU men will play at the University of Virginia, which is ranked 24th in the AP Preseason Poll. The JMU women play host to U.Va. Both games are at 7 p.m.

The Dukes are coming off solid seasons on both the men’s and women’s side, and have done a good job of recruiting over the last few years.

The men’s team probably overachieved a little bit last season as they got hot at the right time and won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to earn an NCAA bid. They lost in the second round to Indiana, but did win their opening-round game against LIU Brooklyn.

Things will certainly be different this season, including the expectations. JMU lost four starters to graduation, and have a very young squad. On top of that, JMU will be without sophomore point guard Andre Nation for the first 15 games of the season, due to a violation of athletic department policy. He should be back on Jan. 7 when the Dukes play at the College of Charleston.

The men’s team has only one senior, Andrey Semenov, on this year’s squad. They have seven freshmen and four sophomores.

Semenov led the way with 28 points for the Dukes in their 73-69 overtime win over Philadelphia University on Sunday in their exhibition game. He will probably have to do more of that, especially early in the season.

Sophomore Taylor Bessick had 11 points and 13 rebounds in the win, and freshmen Tom Vondanovich and Jackson Kent also had solid showings.

I think it’s safe to say fans shouldn’t expect big things from the Dukes this year, which is exactly why I think JMU is in a great position right now. They are young, they are without their starting point guard. Usually when a team is coming off its first NCAA Tournament berth in 19 years, expectations would be high, but they won’t be for the Dukes this year. So I think the team can go out and play loose and free, and maybe just do a little better than many would think. The Dukes were picked seventh in the CAA preseason poll.

No matter what this year’s team does, it will provide a good building block for the next two years. JMU coach Matt Brady has shown that he can do a good job of managing the program and getting the best out of his players, like he did last season. I think the best is still yet to come for this program, and more berths in the NCAA Tournament are on the way.

Things are much different for the JMU women. The women are in a similar position to what the men were last season — except they are the preseason favorites in the CAA and they have a strong tradition already started.

JMU coach Kenny Brooks has done a great job building his program over the years. When Brooks first started in 2002, Old Dominion University was the dominant program in the CAA. JMU slowly but surely began to change that under Brooks, and eventually became the top power in the CAA. They made the NCAA Tournament in 2007, 2010 and 2011.

Then Elena Delle Donne transferred from the University of Connecticut to Delaware University and the Blue Hens became the top team. That’s part of the reason the Dukes have been relegated to the NIT the last two seasons. Now Delle Donne has graduated, and the Dukes are once again the heavy favorites in the CAA.

They also have an experienced team with three seniors and four juniors. I think Brooks has done a good job of making sure he has balance on his team. They are strong at every position. Guard Kirby Burkholder is their top returning scorer, having averaged 15.0 points per game last season. Forward Nikki Newman can be a force inside, and I’m expecting big things this season from sophomore point guard Angela Mickens. The former Robert E. Lee standout was slowed down by an injury last season, but is completely healthy now and will be a force for opposing teams.

The schedule will not be easy, as the Dukes play UCLA, Vanderbilt and North Carolina in their non-conference schedule.

The goal for the JMU women isn’t just to win the CAA, but to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament as well.

The women’s program should continue its winning ways, while the men’s program makes even more strides toward being as successful as the women.

If you’re a JMU fan, now is the time to take in some good basketball this season and be proud of the direction the two programs are going in.

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd