It'd be easy to look at James Madison's sixth place finish in the CAA during the regular season as a failure to live up to potential. But then again, expectations were pretty high in Harrisonburg this season after the Dukes were a preseason top four pick in the Colonial and returned senior forward Denzel Bowles fresh of a 2009-10 campaign that saw him average nearly 21 points along with 9 rebounds. Still, after finishing at 10-8 in conference play, it'll be a first round match-up with William & Mary tonight to open the postseason for JMU, a game that ultimately should end in a win and could easily spark a tournament run.
One thing is for certain, Hofstra - the team waiting in the wings as a three-seed - can't be all that happy that a first-round bye has earned them a potential quarterfinal meeting with a team of James Madison's caliber.
A conference record of 10-8 may not guarantee a top four slot most years, but in a year where the CAA has been particularly top heavy, the Dukes find themselves buried in a spot typically reserved for those plagued with mediocrity. Winning 21 games overall and 10 conference games are usually indications of a strong season, add in that James Madison ranks behind only George Mason in offensive efficiency according to data from Synergy Sports Technology and suddenly this team doesn't look like your typical six seed.
The Dukes began their season with 15 wins in their first 18 games, reeling off a 5-1 in start in Colonial play before running into a buzz saw of a three-game stretch in the second half of January that set the tone for the back end of their schedule. JMU fell to the CAA's top three seeds Old Dominion, George Mason and Hofstra in consecutive games by a total of 10 points. The losses against the Patriots and Pride were both two-point deficits, with the latter coming in overtime. In fact, of the 8 losses in conference this season, only two have come by double-digit margins, a 14-point defeat at Mason on February 12th and a 16-point loss at home against Old Dominion on February 24th. That game was promptly followed up by a win on the road at VCU.
The point of the argument here? James Madison is not your typical six-seed. Overall the team is very strong offensively from an efficiency standpoint, but they play a slower pace (ranking 121st nationally). In all, transition baskets made up just 11% of the Dukes offense during the regular season. It's the halfcourt game where this team thrives. The combination of Bowles inside scoring at a high rate coupled with the top three-point shooting squad in the CAA (and 36th nationally) makes for some intriguing potential. Furthermore, based on data from Synergy, JMU's guards do an outstanding job of utilizing screens as the Dukes rank among the top teams in the country at utilizing the pick and roll. For teams that have attempted at least 100 shots out of these sets, only Wisconsin, Duke, Saint Mary's and Richmond have been more efficient - not bad company to be a part of.
Of course for every argument in favor of JMU making a postseason run of sorts, there is the counterargument, which in this case revolves around team defense. Outside of guarding the post, the Dukes have been only an average defensive team this season, ranking 152nd in adjusted efficiency at this end of the floor. Not surprisingly, for a team that prefers to play at a slower pace on offense, the Dukes have been a poor transition defense team, allowing opposing teams to post an adjusted field goal percentage of 59.6 during the regular season and are among the worst schools in the country when looking through the scope of opponent three-point field goal percentage. One thing they have managed to do consistently well however is prevent second chance opportunities as James Madison holds opponents to an offensive rebound percentage of 28.7 which ranks among the top 45 marks nationally.
Ultimately the Dukes are capable of playing at opposite extremes which is what makes them both so captivating and frustrating. They feature an All-Conference man in the middle (who will at the very least draw some interest from pro scouts), shoot the ball well in general and from the outside and have proven they can play with anyone in the conference. This team is just as capable of being upset by the Tribe later tonight in round one as they are of making a run to Championship Monday. It's that second part that should have opposing fans worried - this Dukes team is no ordinary six seed.