When the James Madison Dukes visit TD Arena this evening to play opponent in College of Charleston’s inaugural Colonial Athletic Association conference battle, one of Matt Brady’s players has a chance to truly crash the party. Though he likely won’t be starting, JMU sophomore guard Andre Nation will make his season debut after practicing with the team all season following a 15-game suspension for undisclosed reasons.
"As we add another significant piece to our team, there’s going to be a natural evolution of our team here and I think everybody’s excited about it," James Madison head coach Matt Brady said during Tuesday’s weekly CAA coaches teleconference. "We’re playing fine now and we’re excited to have him. The only way that Andre Nation will not make this a seamless transition back to our team is if he tries to score too much."
In Nation’s rookie year last season, the 6-5 guard averaged 9.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks en route to being named to the CAA All-Rookie team. After the Duke’s won the conference crown and entered the NCAA Tournament in March, Nation upped his level of production and stood out amongst a crowd of senior starters. He dropped a ridiculous 14-point, 7-rebound, 5-block, 4-assist line against LIU Brooklyn in the First Round and hung 24 points on the No. 1 seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the Dukes’ 83-62 Second Round defeat.
"We all recognize that Andre Nation can make other players better, he’ll make his teammates better. He’s going to make the game easier for some other guys," Brady said. "The thing that I envy about Andre Nation and we’re excited about is that he’s a tremendous passer. He’s got a very high basketball IQ and that’s not always the case with great athletes."
Charleston meanwhile is very prepared for its first run through its new conference after going a respectable 8-7 through a tough conference schedule. The Cougars finished the slate winning four of their last five games.
"It is exciting for us and it was obviously a big decision for us to go to the Colonial and we’re really happy about it," Cougars head coach Doug Wojcik said during the teleconference. "We’re a work in progress—very similar to many teams in the league, actually—we’ve just kind of gelled. All three seniors have really done a nice job for us."
Wojcik feels the upper-echelon athletes the Cougars faced during the first two months of the season were just a preview of the differences his squad will see between the players and teams in Southern Conference and the Colonial.
"[The CAA has] longer athletes, for sure. Longer athletes particularly with length at every position. " Wojcik said. "When you look at JMU, the Cooke kid and Andre Nation, those kids are long and athletic and can create their own shot. For two years for me, every game is going to be a new game. I don’t know Drexel. I don’t know Delaware, besides the fact they both have great guards. It’s going to be great test for me."
JMU will have to adjust themselves, welcoming back such a key player in Andre Nation. In his absence, Brady saw much need-improvements from sophomores Charles Cooke, Ron Curry and Taylor Bessick while sixth-year senior Andrey Semenov has also played solid minutes. A sizeable contribution from freshman guard Jackson Kent, averaging 8.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 26.2 minutes per game, has also helped the Dukes earn a reasonable 6-9 record without their arguable best player in Nation.
"Our sophomores have had to learn what it takes to be marked men. These were guys that were not on the top of anybody’s scouting reports a year ago and now they’re one, two and three on the scouting reports and people are trying to take away tendencies," Brady said. "Taylor Bessick was someone we needed to play well in order for us to win and I think he’s done that. These sophomores have done a good job adjusting to their new roles."
For Charleston, Wojcik has also seen players take big steps, especially Willis Hall, after Andrew Lawrence graduated and freshman starter Canyon Barry sustained an broken finger a few weeks back.
"Willis Hall is a coach's dream," Wojcik said of his senior guard who has upped his nightly production from 7.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season to 11.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest so far this campaign. "Whether you win or lose with Willis Hall, you can accept the outcome. It’s like having a coach on the floor."
The two teams will clash in South Carolina at 7 p.m.