HARRISONBURG — James Madison University’s women’s basketball coach Sean O’Regan was as surprised as anyone when the Dukes were picked to win the Colonial Athletic Association this season by the CAA coaches.
The Dukes only lost one starter from last year’s team, which finished second in the CAA. However, that one player was Precious Hall, who averaged 24.9 points per game.
O’Regan said being picked No. 1 in the pre-season isn’t something he will talk about much with his squad.
“They send out a sheet of paper and they say what do you think, and they base it on that we have four returning starters,” O’Regan said. “But there’s one returning starter in there that was pretty doggone good. For us, I will reference that that’s how your peers see you and we’re moving on. Basically because we do have challenges this year of filling the scoring void that Precious (Hall) left.”
O’Regan said that he feels like his team will be able to handle the challenge of filling the scoring void. He said he’s looking for several players to step up and provide more scoring now that Hall is not there.
O’Regan said that he’s not sure what the identity of his team will be this season, and he’s excited to find out.
“What we’ll end up being, are we a super tough team? I don’t know that part yet,” O’Regan said. “And that’s kind of one of the things, I like, is watching that emerge. Are we a really, really good defensive team, which we’ve shown flashes of. Are we a really good balanced scoring team? Is that going to end up being our thing, where you can’t key on only one person. That part still remains to be seen.”
Sophomore shooting guard Kamiah Smalls is the top returning scorer. She averaged nine points and 5.5 rebounds per contest last year.
O’Regan said Smalls is one of the players he needs to step up and help the team score.
“That’s a challenge for her — embracing how aggressive she has to be in looking for her shot,” O’Regan said. “Not taking shots all the time, but looking for her shot. If she’s looking for her shot then it’s going to create opportunities for others.”
O’Regan said he also expects a lot from JMU’s only two seniors — forward Tasia Butler and guard Hailee Barron.
Butler averaged 5.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, while Baron was second on the team with 81 assists and made 28 3-pointers last season.
O’Regan said he believes they are two of the best role players that JMU has ever had. He said they both bring different characteristics and their leadership is very important to the team.
“Hailee’s a little bit more energy, Tasia’s a little bit more toughness,” O’Regan said. “So both of them are really, really important — to have those roles. And I don’t expect either one of them to be our best scorer, but to do your craft as well as you can do it. And be the best at it, is what I’m trying to get them to do.”
JMU junior forward Aneah Young also returns this season after starting 26 of the Dukes’ 35 games last season.
The Dukes should also be bolstered by the return of redshirt sophomore Kayla Cooper-Williams, who missed all of last season with a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament. The center had a strong freshman season two years ago.
JMU has two seniors, two juniors, seven sophomores and two freshmen this year.
The Dukes host Christopher Newport University on Nov. 5 in the team’s only exhibition game this year. They open the regular season at home with Rutgers University on Nov. 10. The Dukes have a challenging schedule, which includes a road game at the University of Tennessee on Nov. 15 and a home game with Florida State University on Dec. 3.
The Dukes finished 29-6 last year, and lost in the third round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament to Villanova (69-67). JMU has won the CAA Tournament title five of the last eight seasons, but lost in the finals last year to Elon University.
O’Regan said he doesn’t feel like JMU has a target on its back just because they were picked to win the title.
“We got some good momentum going in practice, but that’s really my focus,” O’Regan said. “We didn’t win the championship last year. For me there’s no target on our backs from my perspective. From my perspective, we’re chasing our ring. We’re chasing that championship. And that’s the sole goal of everything we’re doing, is each day we’re really trying to have a championship effort that day.”