No returning player for James Madison had more points, rebounds, assists or steals last season than Matt Lewis. So when Lewis was named the preseason player of the year and his team was picked to finish ninth in the polling released Nov. 11, it was entirely reasonable to expect Lewis to be the Prince — the one-man band playing all the instruments — of the purple-clad Dukes.
On Sunday, though, the Revolution — or, if you prefer your Prince at the turn of the ‘90s, the New Power Generation — finished the Dukes’ climb to the top of the CAA’s charts.
With Lewis, the CAA’s leading scorer, sidelined for the second half due to a knee injury, James Madison asserted itself as the favorite to win the regular-season title by holding off defending champion Hofstra for a 74-70 win that completed a weekend sweep in Harrisonburg. The Dukes overcame a 12-point deficit to outlast the Pride, 93-89, in what might have been the CAA’s best and most entertaining game of the season Saturday.
James Madison has won seven straight to improve to 8-1 in CAA play, a half-game ahead of Northeastern and the program’s best nine-game CAA start since the 1991-92 campaign. Despite playing just half its projected league schedule, the Dukes have as many CAA wins as the two previous regular seasons combined.
“It’s difficult circumstances to try and do that without — and I think it’s not even close, the Player of the Year in the conference — and for different guys to step up and be able to make plays and be ready when their number is called, (he’s) just really proud of the guys,” James Madison head coach Mark Byington said Sunday afternoon. “It was a great win, a hard-fought win, beating a good team — and actually trying to beat them twice is really, really hard. But the way we responded today, it takes guys to have something special inside of them that’s a special quality to be able to pull off something like that.”
The absence of Lewis in the second half Sunday was far from the only stylistic change from Saturday, when the Dukes won even though they trailed for the first 38-plus minutes and despite an atypically porous defensive performance. James Madison limited its previous four opponents to fewer than 65 points and hadn’t allowed a Division I foe to score more than 75 points since an 80-73 loss to Morgan State on Jan. 3.
“I thought this game was kind of on a different script than (Saturday),” Byington said. “Both teams were unbelievable on offense (Saturday) and we had our struggles today on offense at times and we were able to guard them at times. So it didn’t quite look the same.”
On Sunday, the Dukes led 3-2 at the first media timeout and took the lead for good on a pair of free throws by Lewis with 12:12 left in the first half. James Madison held Hofstra scoreless from the field over the final six minutes and led 32-22 at the half, which marked the Pride’s second-lowest first-half output of the season.
The sight of Lewis — who exited with 5:40 left in the half and returned with 2:31 to go only to hobble off the court with the assistance of a teammate a mere 59 seconds later — sitting with ice wrapped around his left knee lent a potentially perilous air to the double-digit lead. Byington said Lewis asked to return but he held him out as a precaution.
Without Lewis, a Dukes lineup consisting mostly of underclassmen continually fended off mini-rallies by Hofstra, which got within two possessions 14 times in the final 10:59 but never closed the gap to three points or fewer.
James Madison was 12-of-30 from the field and 15-of-25 from the free throw line in the second half. Yet in the 13 possessions after Hofstra got within six points or fewer — the game ended on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Tareq Coburn — the Dukes scored 26 points while going 6-of-9 from the field and 9-of-11 from the free throw line.
Junior Vado Morse, who transferred from Mount St. Mary’s prior to the season, scored 12 of those points while freshmen Terrance Edwards and Terrell Strickland and sophomore Julien Wooden combined to score 13 points. There were at least three underclassmen on the floor for the final 9:18 and for 16:20 overall in the half. Edwards, who finished with a career-high 15 points and tied a career-high with eight rebounds Sunday, earned CAA rookie of the week honors
“I thought it was odd — I looked on the court at one time and I’ve got three freshmen, a sophomore and then Vado on the court, and that was probably our lineup for the majority of the second half,” Byington said. “To be able to do that and have three freshmen and a sophomore out there, that’ll keep you up at night as a coach. It’s a little bit scary. But it’s great to see those guys in that situation be able to come through, because that’s a good team to be able to hold off at the end. Guys stayed with it and were able to do it.”
And now the finish line to a rare worst-to-first transformation is in sight for James Madison. The only team to follow a last-place finish by winning the outright regular season title is Richmond, which pulled the feat off in the CAA’s first two seasons in 1982-83 and 1983-84. UNC Wilmington was last in 2013-14 and finished amongst a four-way tie for first in 2014-15.
“No one’s handing out trophies right now on February 14th, so they know we’ve got to keep getting better,” Byington said. “I like where we are on February 14th, but we’ve got to be much better than this by the time we get to March.”
In this coronavirus-dominated season, there’s a non-zero chance James Madison has already played its final regular season game and thus locked up the no. 1 seed for the CAA Tournament, which is scheduled to be played at James Madison’s new on-campus arena. The Dukes, whose penultimate weekend series against Delaware was postponed due to Tier 1 positive cases at Delaware, aren’t scheduled to play again until Drexel is slated to visit Feb. 27-28.
Byington, who has scheduled seven games on the fly since late December, said Sunday he’s not interested in playing any more midweek games nor in playing a third game against a foe his squad has already opposed twice. Perhaps that was a broad statement — the Dukes have played four teams twice apiece — or maybe it was a power move that would have sounded unimaginable barely three months ago. As of Sunday afternoon, Northeastern, which split a series in Boston with James Madison in January, was the only other CAA team not on pause with no games scheduled this week.
While there was some room to interpret Byington’s scheduling comments, there was no doubting how much the Dukes enjoyed delivering a message Saturday and Sunday — one they’ve been eager to state since the preseason polls were released Nov. 11.
The Dukes, the purple-clad band nobody took seriously outside of their lead singer, have taken center stage. And the rest of the band is beginning to strut like frontmen.
“Ever since the season started (and) we were picked last, basically, we just had a chip on our shoulder (to) just prove everybody wrong,” sophomore Michael Christmas said. “We knew it was a big weekend against Hofstra because they’ve been the best team in the conference the last few years. I think beating them twice at our place was a big statement.”
“I have tough guys and a lot of these guys have something to prove,” Byington said. “(They’ve) been doubted. They’ve had things said about them, that they couldn’t be successful, they couldn’t do something. And I remind them of it, but I probably don’t need to remind them of it.”
A frustrating on-court weekend for Hofstra was rendered irrelevant Monday afternoon, when the school announced the Pride was entering a pause due to a positive coronavirus case within its Tier-1 personnel.
He said Monday he’s hoping that long-awaited practice time will help Towson regain the identity and consistency it has lacked. Alas, in yet another 2020-21 twist, the Tigers learned Tuesday they were being paused again due to a positive Tier-1 case.
It’s the first pause of the season for Hofstra, which was the only CAA school to play all its scheduled games thus far. Officially, the Pride has only postponed this weekend’s home finale series against Charleston, though the series at Elon scheduled for Feb. 27-28 — one which requires air travel — would seem to be in serious jeopardy as well, especially with both teams having already played the eight games needed to qualify for the CAA Tournament.
TIGERS, PHOENIX FINALLY RISE
The CAA’s longest losing streaks ended within minutes of each other Sunday afternoon, when Towson completed a 68-57 win over Northeastern and Elon finished off a wire-to-wire 66-55 victory over Charleston.
The wins snapped eight-game losing streaks for Towson, which hadn’t won since beating UNC Wilmington Jan. 19, and Elon, which hadn’t won since a non-conference victory over Campbell back on Dec. 16.
“(Elon head coach) Mike’s (Schrage) had pauses like we’ve had and had some serious injuries,” Towson head coach Pat Skerry said. “It’s tricky. You just try and see if you can get some games in with the full group of guys.”
The wins Sunday came after perhaps the most discouraging losses for both teams. On Saturday, Elon trailed by as many as 31 points in the second half of a 71-53 loss while Towson fell to Northeastern, 76-67, in the Huskies’ first game back following a 20-day pause.
It was the second straight weekend the Tigers lost to a team coming off a pause. Charleston came off its 20-day pause to sweep Towson Feb. 6-7.
Towson won Sunday despite a depleted rotation. Cam Allen (family emergency) and Zane Martin did not play while Jason Gibson exited with an injury after scoring seven points in six minutes.
In a classic 2020-21 twist, Skerry said the Tigers’ undermanned victory was preceded by the team’s first full week of practice this season. He’s hoping that long-awaited practice time will help Towson regain the identity and consistency it has lacked.
“We didn’t have a lot of bodies, but we defended and we rebounded,” Skerry said. “For us, the one thing I’ve learned during this is we’ve had a hard time developing habits because we haven’t had that consistent routine. Some places have done a very good job navigating this or have had great fortune. Like I said, my guys, we just haven’t had as much luck or success yet in navigating a constantly changing routine.”
STATS OF THE WEEK
The eight-game losing streaks snapped Sunday by Towson and Elon marked the first time two CAA teams ended losing streaks of at least six games on the same day since Feb. 11, 2016, when Northeastern ended a six-game losing streak by beating Towson and Delaware ended a 15-game losing streak by knocking off Drexel.
Hofstra led for the first 38-plus minutes in Saturday’s 93-89 loss — the longest the Pride has gone before falling behind in a loss since Nov. 19, 2013, when it never trailed in regulation before falling behind 34 seconds into overtime in a 74-63 loss to Richmond.
A weird season could get weirder Wednesday, when Northeastern is scheduled to visit North Carolina — yup, that North Carolina — in a game added to the schedule late Monday night. Northeastern head coach Bill Coen enters the game tied atop the school’s all-time win list with Jim Calhoun. The only other series scheduled for this weekend is a home-and-home between Elon and William & Mary slated for Thursday and Saturday.
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.