2021 Hercules Tires CAA Men's Basketball Championship

Despite Painful CAA Tournament Loss, James Madison Is Ahead Of Schedule

Despite Painful CAA Tournament Loss, James Madison Is Ahead Of Schedule

James Madison lost in heartbreaking fashion in the CAA tournament, but despite the premature loss Mark Byington's squad is headed in the right direction.

Mar 8, 2021 by Kyle Kensing
Despite Painful CAA Tournament Loss, James Madison Is Ahead Of Schedule

March basketball’s thrills and excitement would not be as meaningful without the inherent heartache of single-elimination competition. 

But because all save a small fraction of the 351 Div. I programs finish their seasons with wins, the anguish necessary to accentuate the triumph of March earns little more than a footnote — maybe the quintessential tearful slo-mo shot over the second verse of “One Shining Moment,” but rarely more. 

The circumstances of James Madison’s 2020-21 season-ending will be forgotten soon enough — well, maybe not soon, given the late technical foul coach Mark Byington received with just over a minute left in the Dukes’ 72-71 heartbreaker against Elon. The memory won’t last forever, though. 

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The banner that will go up in the new Atlantic Union Bank Center, denoting this season’s Dukes as regular-season Colonial Athletic Association champions will. 

“Something I told the seniors, and the entire team, they’re forever going to be connected by coming back to this arena and seeing in the rafters that they’re regular-season champions,” Byington said in his postgame press conference following the CAA Tournament quarterfinal defeat. “They’re going to be able to look at the year 2021 and say, ‘I was a huge part of that.’”

As the 2020-21 season progressed, every step for James Madison felt, from an outside perspective, like progress made ahead of schedule. 

Byington took over in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, the same pandemic that moved the CAA Tournament from Washington, D.C. to Harrisonburg. Stepping into a program coming off a last-place finish, without the ability to meet players in person or oversee offseason workout regimens, put James Madison at a unique disadvantage. 

Once the season began, though, Byington’s first year looked more like Year 3 or 4 in a typical rebuilding project. 

“After the VCU game [an 82-81 loss on Dec. 22], we had more belief and more confidence. And then we got to league play, beating Northeastern — because of how good they were playing at the time — was a big moment for us.”

The Jan. 24 win at Northeastern, which was undefeated in the CAA at the time, ignited the winning streak that won the Colonial for the Dukes. 

James Madison rolled off seven in that stretch, including a sweep of reigning champion and preseason favorite Hofstra. In fact, over that seven-game winning streak, James Madison beat all four teams in the CAA semifinals. 

The development of the program may have appeared to be sprinting ahead of schedule by that juncture, but Byington described the process in much different terms. 

“This team just had a slow climb, but the keyword being ‘climb,’” he said. “They kept getting better and better. We were able to figure out the team.”

A combination of talented freshmen with enough veteran experience to balance worked well. Youngsters like Justin Amadi, Terrence Edwards and Terell Strickland contributing as prominently as they did suggests the success of 2021 isn’t a one-time deal. 

But returning players aren’t what make this time of year in basketball so dramatic. Losing in the tournament format has a gut-wrenching finality for seniors. In the case of James Madison, seniors were critical to shaping the conference championship. 

“They helped plant it. They planted the future success of this program,” Byington said of the seniors. “We’re going to keep growing and getting better. It’s a tough, tough ending but these guys did a lot of things that were memorable in a special way.”

CAA Player of the Year Matt Lewis sustained an injury that ended his season prematurely. His contributions were undeniable and celebrated as such. Fellow senior Zach Jacobs played arguably the best ball of his career late in the season. 

COVID-19 creates an interesting situation in the weeks following the season’s conclusion. Because of the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, the NCAA granted seniors an extra year of eligibility. 

How that impacts players’ decisions around the country will vary on a case-by-case basis. Lewis is someone Towson coach Pat Skerry said had an NBA future, and the guard could begin his pro pursuits. 

Certainly if Lewis and Jacobs were to run it back with a roster also returning the trio of freshmen standouts and Vado Morse — a junior who developed into one of the nation’s most explosive scorers by season’s end — the Dukes would be a slam-dunk choice to win another regular-season title. 

No matter what happens in 2022, however, the banner of 2021 will hang in Harrisonburg all the same.

Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.