Monday, March 17, 2014

Hard not to be in awe of Kenny Brooks and this JMU team

Take a moment before Monday's selection show to revel in the season James Madison has produced.

Indeed, the Dukes (27-5) are CAA Tournament champions, who won their league games by an average of 20.3 ppg. They opened the season with a victory over Virginia and haven't underwhelmed since.

We're not overlooking losses to Wright State, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Mississippi State and College of Charleston. Wright State was by two on December 1 (the Raiders are Horizon League champs by the way); Mississippi State was on Nov. 30. Vandy was OT, and at North Carolina was a near miss, 74-71. (Three of those four will be NCAA Tournament teams; Mississippi State is headed to the WNIT.)  College of Charleston was a hiccup in the CAA, a rare off morning -- as the game was played before a throng of school children in TD Arena.

These aren't excuses, they're facts -- enough to say it's hard to find too many blemishes with this JMU bunch that finished 15-1 in the CAA, was never threatened in the conference tournament and had quality wins over UCLA and St. John's.

Senior Night for Nikki and Kirby
They have five starters who are the envy of every team in the league. Kirby Burkholder seemed like a role player at best as a freshman, averaging a forgettable 1.3 ppg. Then she became a contributing starter for two years and finally CAA Player of the Year as a senior, five 3-pointers shy of holding the career record in the league. Her transformation is testimony to a work ethic that more players should emulate.

Nikki Newman is nothing short of a player who has an impact on every possession -- someone who does so many of the small things right on the court that they add up to team MVP. Coach Kenny Brooks might as well be suiting up when Newman is on the floor. She is that smart about what to do when, and she is that much of a leader.

Toia Giggetts has gotten better every year (25 straight games scoring double figures and counting), and Precious Hall, a double-figure scorer in 15 of her  last 16 games  were both named all-conference and made the all-tournament team over the weekend. Jazmon Gwathmey is the lone starter who was not named all conference, and guess what? She scored a career-high 20 with 14 boards against Delaware in the CAA championship game and was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Her potential is WNBA scary.

Love Angela Mickens' speed. Like what Lauren Okafor could bring to the post next season and ditto for Da'Lishia Griffin. Not doubting a future for Crystal Ross, either.

It's hard to say enough good things about Brooks, whose Dukes teams have won at least 24 games and reached the postseason for the last 10 years. We don't know if he was in the mix for the Virginia and Virginia Tech jobs a few years back -- hope it was his choice if the answer was no -- but if he wasn't, the only question is why not? JMU is no flash in the pan. He and an all-Dukes coaching staff develop players in a manner that leads to the consistency reminiscent of former Old Dominion teams. This particular group is so well balanced that you never know who the offense will come from, you just believe it will be there.

Wonderfully refreshing about this team is that Burkholder and Newman are homegrown kids from up the street -- Turner Ashby High in Harrisonburg. Brooks has known each since she was 10, and jokes he spent "about $10 to recruit them." Both received a sentimental Senior Night sendoff before a record-breaking crowd of 6,590 at the JMU Convo Center on March 2.

So take a bow Dukes, coaches, fans, and enjoy the dance. You deserve to be the winners you are.

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