With the hiring of Virginia native Mark Byington in 2020, the James Madison Dukes have seen an abrupt turnaround becoming one of the top mid-major programs in all of college basketball.
While several losing seasons preceded Byington’s time as head coach at JMU, he quickly changed that, leading the Dukes to a 13-7 record in his first year in charge and earning the CAA regular season championship.
Now with his second season underway, Byington has James Madison off to a 9-2 start and once again atop the CAA led by a group of exciting guards in Takal Molson, Vado Morse and Charles Falden.
Cruising to 6-0 at home, the Dukes have sparked a historic run at the Atlantic Union Bank Center by taking down each in-state rival they’ve faced including the Virginia Cavaliers. It marked JMU’s first-ever victory over UVA with a 52-49 win.
For Byington, this wasn’t just any win. It was an opportunity to evaluate his program against a perennial power that claimed the 2019 national title under coach Tony Bennett, one of the brightest minds in the game.
“As you’re somebody trying to build a program like we are here at JMU, you envy other programs and see what they did to try and see what the blueprint was,” Byington said during the post-game press conference. “What [Bennett’s] done at UVA is remarkable. It was great to be able to go against him and be challenged in all sorts of ways.”
Although Byington’s addition has been crucial to the Dukes’ rise, following the historic win, the coach gave all the credit to his players for the work they’ve put in to help build this program.
“Going against [Virginia] I wanted our guys to understand how difficult it was going to be,” he said. “I told them we’re going to have to overcome adversity three or four times in a game. Sure enough it started the game that way, we couldn’t score… but our guys were getting the right shots. They battled, and our defense was tremendous in the first half.
“I’m glad our guys got a chance to experience this, and I’m also glad our fans got a chance to experience something like this because we’re trying to build something here.”
Despite its regular season championship last season, James Madison finished fourth and received only three first-place votes in the 2021-22 CAA preseason poll.
Byington has really taken the early season as an opportunity to show that his team’s previous success was not a fluke and that JMU is in fact building something with its basketball program in Harrisonburg, Va.
With a visit to UPenn scheduled on Tuesday and then road trips to Towson, Delaware and Drexel to start conference play, the Dukes won’t have an opportunity to defender their undefeated home record until they face Hofstra on Jan. 9.
Between a host of exciting programs, the CAA is shaping up to be a real tough conference battle this season, and James Madison - led by Byington - should be right in the mix of contenders.