Friday, December 13, 2013

JMU preps for St. John's tourney

For JMU, the next five days are filled with opportunity and possibilities.

The Dukes (6-2) will play three games over this span, with two of them coming against resume-enhancing opponents. If successful, JMU can brand itself as not just a team good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but one capable of making some noise once they get there. And trust us, perception is important when it comes to the NCAA selection committee.

It all starts Saturday at 2:30 p.m. when the Dukes take on Prairie View in the opening round of the sixth annual Chartwells Holiday Classic at St. John's. On Sunday, JMU will face the Big East-based host school at 2 p.m. Both games air on ESPN3.

And on Wednesday, it'll be the Dukes doing the hosting against Southeastern Conference power Vanderbilt.

Of course, the Dukes will be focused only on today's game. But the rest of us can take a peek at where all this might be headed. And for NCAA at-large and seeding purposes, JMU needs to pile up as many victories over major conference opponents as it can. That's why we were thrilled when we saw JMU's non-conference schedule was littered with power conference foes. Because beating these teams isn't just a good way to impress the selection committee. It's the only way.

We won't bore you with the numbers - you can e-mail us for them if you'd like - but we examined every non-power conference team that's received an NCAA at-large bid over the past five years. Simply put, you're not getting invited without at least one victory over a quality opponent from the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12. Now it's possible to post such a victory and still not get invited. But without one - at least one - you have no chance.

 Remember a couple of years ago, when JMU had a better record, better RPI, better everything than Middle Tennessee State, plus a win over the Blue Raiders, and MTSU still got an NCAA invite when the Dukes were relegated to the WNIT? Well, Middle Tennessee had a win over powerhouse Kentucky. JMU had no such comparable win. That's what the committee focused in on.

In short, the Dukes can pile up all the non-power conference victories they want. Heck, they can can even go undefeated in the CAA regular season, the way Florida Gulf Coast did last year in the Atlantic Sun. Based on recent history, it won't matter to the NCAA selection types.

You see, the unfortunate perception not just within the committee but among fans, media types and even coaches who hang the second-class "mid-major" label around their own necks is that even halfway-decent teams from the Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC are inherently better than everyone else. So if you're part of that "everyone else," unless you can document success over one of more of the big money conference teams, you're not getting the benefit of the doubt - from virtually anyone.

Fortunately for the Dukes, with wins already over Virginia and UCLA, they've already started building their case (JMU has also beaten new ACC member Pittsburgh, although based on recent history that win might not meet the "quality" standard). Now neither the Cavaliers nor the Bruins has hit stride yet. But if both teams play to their capabilities, those wins should look a lot better come March.

Instead of banking on that, though, the Dukes have a chance to chop down some more heavyweights.
Now the Big East ain't what it used to be, but St. John's still looks like a Top-50 team, at least. Vanderbilt is a perennial force in the SEC. And on Jan. 2, the Dukes will close out non-conference play with the toughest assignment of them all, a trip to North Carolina.

For now, though, this stuff is for us to talk about - the Dukes need to be locked in on Saturday's date with Prairie View. Assuming they are, they don't figure to have too many problems. While Prairie View has won the last three SWAC Tournament titles, the Lady Panthers have stumbled to an 0-6 start this year under interim coach Dawn Brown (former head coach Toyelle Wilson resigned over the summer to become an assistant at Baylor).

So far this year the Lady Panthers have struggled offensively (the team has yet to have more than one player finish in double figures scoring in any game); defensively (teams shoot 46.3 percent against Prairie View, a figure that ranks 332rd in Division I); and in rebounding (the Lady Panthers average a minus-12 on the boards and will be facing a JMU team that's at plus-11.2).

Other than that, Prairie View should be OK. Look anything can happen after tipoff. But if the Dukes play anywhere near their normal level, the Lady Panthers are in deep doo-doo.

St. John's (5-2) poses a much greater challenge, particularly at home where the Red Storm is 4-0. The team also has a big-time baller in sophomore guard Aliyyah Handford, who is averaging 23.4 points per game (13th in Division I)  on eye-popping 58.5 percent shooting (from a 5-9 guard?).

But hey, games like these aren't supposed to be easy. Neither is getting the selection committee's attention. But the Dukes are off to a great start.

Let's see how many more heads they can turn.

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