Thursday, March 13, 2014

Previewing the CAA: Can anybody beat JMU?

It's anybody's tournament. It'll be a dogfight. Everybody's a contender.

Well, sure. But we're putting all the big bucks LadySwish has raked in over the years on James Madison.

Barring catastrophe or major upset -- and indeed both do happen -- we expect Kirby and Nikki to be wearing huge smiles mid-Sunday afternoon, and Kenny Brooks not to be answering questions about JMU's potential for an at-large bid. Now we could have said the same thing a year ago -- insert Delaware players and coach in place of JMU names in above sentence, and indeed Drexel almost pulled the stunner. But a JMU loss would be as shocking as Tina Martin showing up in pastels, and here's why.

These Dukes are the best team in the state and the best team in the CAA. No slight to College of Charleston -- the lone league team to interrupt what looked to be a league sweep -- but should the teams meet in the final, our nudge goes to JMU. The game won't be in Charleston nor will 1,895 screaming schoolchildren be in the stands (though those lil Dukes can be rowdy). All credit to Natasha Adair's five seniors for the 85-78 victory on Feb. 27 that puts a blemish on the JMU slate, and makes a win mandatory given the committee's disdain for giving the league an at-large bid. Prior to that loss, the Dukes hadn't dropped a game since nearly upsetting North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Jan. 2. 

Why are we so confident in JMU? Kirby Burkholder is the best player in the CAA and a senior. Nikki Newman -- who Brooks calls the team MVP -- is the best defensive player in the CAA and has transformed herself into a strong point guard as a fifth-year senior. While JMU has produced some fine memories in the WNIT, we imagine Kirby and Nikki aren't going to settle for another trip there. Toia, Precious and Jazmon aren't bit players, either. Player-for-player, this Dukes team has put together a marvelous 25-5 season that should continue Sunday with their first trophy since 2011. And we'd bet they'll be plenty of purple behind them to make sure it happens.

But, but, but

Yep, there's always one of those. Delaware is the second seed, and indeed we don't put much past Martin, who knows a thing or two about winning conference championships. But the Blue Hens dropped three of their final four, including a puzzling loss to William and Mary, the Tribe's first win over Delaware since '99. But Martin has admitted the season has worn on her 10 freshmen and sophomores, though no doubt a week of rest will do them good. She's eager to see how they react at tournament time and so are we.

We never count out Drexel. Denise Dillon's crew plays incredibly poised ball in big spots -- just ask Martin whose Hens almost succumbed a year ago. Dillon is extremely capable of lulling teams into playing Drexel slow-and-controlled basketball. Watch out if Fiona Flanagan is draining 3s.

And of course, there's the Cougars, who did pull the upset and who are the No. 3 seed in the tournament despite being conference newbies. They're veteran and they're second in offense to JMU and why not be confident given the upset a few weeks ago?


Defending champion: Delaware (two straight)
1. James Madison (25-5, 15-1); 2. Delaware (18-9, 10-6); 3. College of Charleston (16-13, 9-7); 4. Drexel (14-15, 9-7); 5. Hofstra (14-14, 8-8); 6. Towson (13-16, 7-9); 7. Northeastern (12-17, 6-10); 8. William and Mary (8-20, 3-11); 9. UNCW (4-26, 3-13).

Complete bracket

Local starts
UNCW vs. William and Mary, 2 p.m. Thursday
James Madison vs. winner of UNCW/W&M, noon Friday

Faces to watch

Truth be told, we don't know how we will get along without having Nikki Newman to look forward to in the purple. That old cliche about making those around you better? That's Newman, who doesn't always score pretty but lifts her teammates with the gritty  play of a Husky -- no offense, Northeastern. A UConn Husky.

We're going to miss W&M's Kaitlyn Mathieu, too. While we've always wondered if Mathieu sings scat as well as her favorite character in "The Jungle Book," (that would be Baloo), she's a rebound hog with shot blocking prowess, and we can't help but wonder what kind of number she would have put up with Ed Swanson as coach.

Love to watch the unorthodox moves of all-arms-and-legs Jazmon Gwathmey (JMU), and every time we see Northeastern's Jewel Tunstull we wonder why the Huskies don't win more.

On the coaching front, gotta say we love to watch Tina Martin. She's such a blue-collar, tell-it-like-it-is coach who patrols the sidelines with a persistent scowl but is quick to reward her young team with positive energy in the postgame. And as for the pastel reference, we mean it, Coach. You look great in gray!

See you in Upper Marlboro!

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