Tommy Keeler Jr.: Could be real good year for JMU hoops

It’s a great time for JMU fans.

The JMU football team is on the verge of a playoff berth, and today the men’s and women’s basketball teams open their seasons at home against Top 25 teams. Both basketball teams could have very good seasons.

It will certainly take a little time for the men’s basketball team to come together. The Dukes will take on No. 7 Virginia tonight at 7 p.m. without two of its top players in Andre Nation and Tom Vodanovich. The two were suspended after getting into a fight with each other several months ago.

I know what you’re thinking — that doesn’t bode well for team chemistry. However, if the two can put their differences aside, they can help lead the Dukes to a very good year.

The JMU men have the talent to contend for the CAA title with Nation, Vodanovich and Ron Curry back. Sophomore Jackson Kent is stronger and could really help in the scoring column. Freshman guard Joey McLean is also showing a lot of promise early on.

Part of JMU’s problems last season were on the offensive end, and I think they will be better in that regard this season. JMU is also going to be using more pressure defensively to try and turn the ball over, leading to more offense. That’s where Nation and Vodanovich can make a huge impact.

JMU lost a lot of close games last season, and I expect them to be in more this season. JMU coach Matt Brady said he expects the league to be closer than ever.

“I think the first-place team, whoever it’s going to end up being, is going to be in a dogfight when they play the 10th place team on the road,” Brady said. “There’s not a lot of separation. One of the things that we hope for is to go through a season without injuries or anything else that’s going to keep guys out of the rotation, because I think that’s what can be the separation between the top half of our league, the top third of our league and the bottom third of our league.”

If the Dukes can somehow come together and develop some chemistry, they could be in that top half of the league. That could be quite a challenge for a team with no seniors, but it can certainly be done.

JMU’s opener will probably not go very well against the Cavaliers, although Virginia will be without starting point guard London Perrantes due to a suspension. A sellout crowd is expected for the JMU-Virginia game and either way they should be entertained, even if the game isn’t close. It certainly is a great opportunity for JMU’s men’s basketball program.

“I’m excited for everybody at JMU. I’m excited for our players,” Brady said. “And what I continue to remind our players, when they get tired at the end of practice — these are the games that you grow up dreaming about playing when you’re on the playground. So let’s not lose sight at the opportunity that’s in front of us. Let’s make sure, [while] we may not be as healthy as we want to be, let’s make sure we bring the great energy that we need to bring in order to pull the great upset.”

The JMU women have a much more realistic chance at starting their season with a win, when they host No. 23 UCLA today at 1 p.m. It’s just the kind of game that coach Kenny Brooks wants to have year after year.

Brooks said he tried to schedule a lot of BCS teams, especially in the state, but nobody wants to play the Dukes right now.

JMU won a first-round NCAA Tournament game last season on its way to a 29-6 record. The program continues to rise, and Brooks continues to bring in the players needed to keep the program going strong.

Even though the Dukes lost Kirby Burkholder and Nikki Newman to graduation, they still have a strong nucleus of talent led by Precious Hall, Jazmon Gwathmey, Lauren Okafor and Toia Giggetts. They will also have St. John’s transfer Ashley Perez after the first of the year.

UCLA has the top recruiting class in the country, with five freshmen ranked in the top 30. JMU beat UCLA last year, and I would expect the game to be very competitive.

The Dukes also play Pittsburgh and Maryland early in the season. Brooks understands the importance of playing good teams.

“I came from the [former ODU head coach] Wendy Larry old school that ‘If you want to be a great team, you have to play great teams,'” Brooks said. “You can stockpile wins, but we want to try to win the right game. The right games are the BCS programs, and so we try to play them.”

The JMU women have established themselves as a dangerous mid-major team that many top teams don’t want to play, and the men are trying to do the same. If both programs can reach their potential this season, they could both have on their dancing shoes during March Madness.

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