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A storybook turnaround has James Madison in first place of the CAA

Mark Byington has helped the Dukes make the turn from worst to first in the league.

James Madison v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Plenty has changed since the end of the 2019-20 season for James Madison. After ending on an eight-game losing streak and finishing in last place in the CAA, the Dukes are in the middle of a remarkable turnaround. They’re riding a seven-game winning streak and are alone in first place in the conference.

They have a new coach, a new arena, and eight newcomers on their roster. It’s been a complete and positive overhaul in Harrisonburg.

The new guy in charge is Mark Byington. He left a Georgia Southern program that he built into a contender, leading them to three straight 20-plus win seasons for the first time in 30 years. The Eagles racked up 13 all-conference selections and had the 2019 Sun Belt Player of the Year in Tookie Brown.

“It was just the potential of James Madison,” said Byington, reflecting on what drew him to the school. “Just their [Athletics Director’s and school President’s] vision matched my vision, and they had big dreams for the basketball program. They were extremely committed to making the basketball program successful.”

One part of that vision was the addition of a new basketball arena, the Atlantic Union Bank Center. It’s an 8,500-seat arena that the university poured over $135 million into. They had it ready for the season opener against Limestone, and it took the Twitter world by storm with its beauty. Just watch the video of this tour. I will let your eyes do the work for me.

To be successful in the new arena, with a new coach, you must get players to buy into your system, and it seems like Byington has done that. He turned a program that was at the bottom of the barrel — finished 9-21 last season — into the cream of the crop with a 13-5 record so far.

“I’ve got guys that are surrounded by me that just all have something to prove,” Byington said. “There were five guys that returned from the previous team, and those five guys were really committed to winning.”

One of those five has been a star for the Dukes over the last four years: Matt Lewis.

Lewis has taken significant strides each season, starting on the CAA All-Rookie team, then making third-team all-conference his sophomore season, second-team his junior year, and ultimately Preseason Player of the Year in his senior season. He has lived up to those expectations.

He helped lead the team to their best season since his arrival, he has scored double digits in all but one of the games he has played this season.

He could’ve easily left the program for a larger school, but Lewis was committed to giving JMU a CAA championship.

“I came in here as a freshman with the plan to try to turn this thing around, and I stay committed to that,” Lewis said. “I’m looking forward to carrying this thing on.”

Over the last four years, he has upped his averages in both points and assists. He also ranks in the top 20 of the CAA rankings in 12 categories on KenPom. But with only five returning players, some of the newcomers have had to make a big difference too.

Byington got one of the most sought-after mid-major transfers in the mid-Atlantic with guard Vado Morse from Mount Saint Mary’s. In his two seasons in Emmittsburg, he was stellar, averaging double-digit points in both seasons.

During his freshman season, he was named the NEC Rookie of the Year. He began the next with a near-upset of Georgetown, scoring 18.

He went from scoring 10.8 in one of the lower-tier mid-major leagues to averaging 13.3 PPG and taking a quarter of the team shots in one of the more prolific mid-major leagues.

“I just worked on my game, my ball-handling,” Morse said about the step up.

Along with another veteran leader, James Madison has had a freshmen influx. In the last two weeks, a Duke has been named the CAA Freshman of the Week. They have had three separate players win it throughout the year.

Last week, Terrence Edwards won the honor, playing the most minutes in a series he has so far this season. It happened to be against the 2020 CAA Tournament Champions, Hofstra.

In game two he scored 15, racking up eight rebounds. This was his best performance since a 10-point game against bubble team VCU, back in December.

The week before Edwards, Terrell Strickland won his first CAA Rookie of the Week honor. The “energetic” freshman began his career off with a 10-steal game against D-II Limestone, smashing the school’s single-game record in just his first game.

Along with all of this, he has started the last eight games for the Dukes, scoring double digits in three.

The first Duke to win Rookie of the Week was Justin Amadi, a freshman from Greenville, South Carolina.

After missing a couple of games in early December, Amadi has started the last 15 games for the Dukes. He has done this all in style.

Amadi has scored double digits in eight of the 18 games he has appeared in, shooting 67% from the field. Along with that, he ranks in the top 125 of six KenPom categories, including turnover rate.

The success of the JMU football program has helped the hoops team a bit. The football team is consistently ranked at the top of the FCS, dishing out NFL talent including Cowboys quarterback Ben DiNucci, and two Super Bowl LV champions.

There has been some talk of conference realignment within the program, moving up into an FBS conference like Conference USA. Byington is building a program that could not only compete but win that league.

The Dukes currently have a half-game lead over always pesky Northeastern, with the opportunity to play nine more CAA games. The Dukes are currently slated to get back into action against Drexel on Feb. 27.

They will keep growing within that time though, preparing to try and make their first NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Terrell Strickland is excited about that future: “I just feel like we came in with a ton of energy, we all came here for the one goal of bonding with the team, and winning and turning the program around.”