Dukes have potential for strong year

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University men’s basketball fans will have to be patient this season, but if they are it may be well worth the wait.

The Dukes will start off the season short-handed, but once they get to full strength they could be in store for a solid season.

JMU 6-foot-5 junior guard Andre Nation will miss the first five games due to a suspension for an altercation with teammate Tom Vodanovich. The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward will miss the first two games of the season. Both are expected to make a serious impact on the team this season.

To make matters even tougher for the Dukes is the fact that they open their season at home Friday against the University of Virginia, the No. 7 ranked team in the country.

“We feel like we’ve made progress after each of [our first] two [preseason games]. But, I think Friday is a completely different animal,” JMU coach Matt Brady said. “With a full house expected and great energy in the Convo and a significant opponent, we’ll find out a lot out about ourselves come Friday night.”

The Dukes may also be without sophomore Ivan Lukic and freshman Hari Hall, both of whom have been battling injuries.

Once the Dukes get past the first couple weeks of the season, there’s reason to believe the team can be successful.

JMU doesn’t have any seniors, but has three juniors — Nation, Ron Curry and Winston Grays.

Curry averaged 12.1 points and 3.6 rebounds and Brady said he expects him to be a better shooter this season.

“That was the thing with Ron last year, was from a statistical perspective, he could certainly improve his 3-point percentage,” Brady said. “There’s every reason to believe he’s significantly improved his shooting. Now he’s got to do it during the course of the season.”

The Dukes return seven sophomores. Brady said 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Yohanny Delembert has really improved, as has Lukic. Brady is also expecting big things from 6-7 guard Jackson Kent, who he said has put on 22 pounds in the offseason.

“Jackson Kent is certainly stronger than he was a year ago,” Brady said. “Our strength and conditioning coach has done a remarkable job with him. Jackson has made a jump from last year. He’s certainly making shots, playing with more energy and aware of what he needs to do to help our team.”

Brady will also rely on a couple talented freshmen in Hall and point guard Joey McLean.

“In a lot of ways Ron and Joey McLean have played a lot together already in the preseason,” Brady said. “They started the Navy scrimmage together and played well together. But Joey’s really a natural point guard with the ball in his hands and is very comfortable getting into tight cracks in the defense, something we really do need from that smaller point guard. We were fortunate to get a guy that, I think, he has a really good basketball IQ. He’s got really good bursts of speed.”

Of course Nation and Vodanovich are the other big pieces of the JMU puzzle. While they averaged a combined 19.5 points per game last season, their biggest impact may be on defense.

Brady said the Dukes are going to switch their style of defense this year, and Nation and Vodanovich were the two biggest reasons he decided to do that.

“What we want to do is be somewhat more disruptive defensively, get in the passing lanes and create some more deflections if not turnovers on the defensive end,” Brady said. “We put this style in play because we were anticipating having two high-energy defensive players in Andre Nation and Tom Vodanovich — two guys that were very comfortable getting in passing lanes.

“Without Nation and Vodanovich, it’s going to be a little bit of a work in progress in terms of getting our depth back and getting the energy back from those two guys. They will certainly add a lot to our team when they come back.”

Brady said he expects the CAA to be very competitive this season, with basically every team having a shot at the title.

JMU has talent and depth, and Brady said it could be a very good season for the young squad if they keep working on getting better.

“We’re going to be a team that hopefully gets better as the year goes on, and we’re not going to rely on any one guy to score the ball,” Brady said. “When we get healthy and when we get all of our guys back, I think the one thing we’re going to have is the best depth that we’ve had in my time.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com