Matt Brady aims for a better start, Tony Shaver for a better finish. Whoever gets their wish is likely through to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals.
William and Mary has squandered an inordinate number of games with late lapses, thus earning an eighth-place finish and the No. 6 seed in this year's depleted-field event at the Richmond Coliseum.
The most recent example was one week ago against the very same James Madison team it faces 8:30 p.m. Saturday in the quarterfinals. The Dukes came back from 19 points down to edge the Tribe (13-16) on Senior Night in Williamsburg.
"We're very encouraged, but also realistic with our team," said Shaver, the Tribe's coach. "We feel like we can play very well in this tournament, but realistic in the sense that we've got to find a little something extra. We can't stand pat right now.
"The top three or four teams in this league, we've battled right to the wire, but we haven't won a lot of those games, so we've got to find a little extra. That extra can come in many different forms. It can be more consistency on defense, getting that one extra defensive rebound. We feel like we can play with anybody but we've got to find an extra to beat these best teams."
JMU (17-14) had the extra in both games versus the Tribe, in A.J. Davis. The senior wing poured in a career-high 36 points and was all but unguardable in the Dukes' 69-67 win last week. He scored 27 points, and hit 7 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half, in JMU's 81-71 win in Harrisonburg.
Brady takes little comfort from JMU's first season sweep of William and Mary since 2009. The Dukes logged a remarkable shooting performance to win the first game and then pulled off an unlikely comeback in Williamsburg.
"To be honest with you, I don't know that there's any momentum," Brady said. "In fact, with so many young guys, there's a part of me that believes that it can work against us. The fact that we were able to beat them twice — and we had to play great in both second halves — I'm trying to fight with my team the mentality that we're better.
"There's no part of me that believes that we're the better basketball team. We're very different basketball teams. I think we're pretty even basketball teams. We just happened to play very well in the second half. They played very well in the first half."
After a January slog, the Tribe won four of its final six games. Its last three losses were by four, two and two points — to regular-season champ Northeastern, George Mason and JMU, respectively.
"It's kind of almost our curse, when we go up big on another team," W&M senior Matt Rum said. "Whether it's 8, 10, 12 points, it seems that we kind of get complacent. We kind of stop playing at both ends a little bit. I don't know what that is.
"I don't know whether we think we're comfortable with the lead and we can still kind of lollygag around and still win the game. Obviously, we know that's not the case, and we realize that each possession at this time of the year is so important. We have gotten better in each of these losses. We seem to drop the ball late, and I think we realize what we need to do."
Rum is one of the few holdovers from the 2010 team that finished third in the league and advanced to the tournament final.
"I see a lot of similarities between this team and the team my freshman year," Rum said. "This team has stayed together, stayed united throughout this entire season, through its peaks and valleys. I think that comes into play at this point of the season, how close your team is, how well you play together and how confident you are going into the tournament. All those aspects factor into who plays well in this tournament."
The last time JMU won more than one tournament game was 1997. The Dukes have been one-and-done in Richmond seven of the past nine years and last won a tournament game in 2010.
Brady believes this team is better equipped for a tournament run than several of his previous groups.
"I think that the guys we're putting on the court are all of a mindset that we need to defend at a very high level for 40 minutes in order to have a chance to win," he said. "Some of the teams I've had, most notably two years ago when we played William and Mary in the first round, was a much more offensively gifted team than the one I'm bringing to Richmond this weekend. We would have one or two guys on the court that would try and outscore teams. That's not the nature of this team right now.
"This team recognizes the need to defend at a very high level and to rebound and to communicate and talk on defense. I still think we're a work in progress because we're playing four freshmen an awful lot, but I do think we're getting better and there's parts of the game where we can be really good defensively. But unfortunately we've got to do it for 40 minutes on Saturday against Tony's team, because I expect Tony's team is going to play great, too."
The Tribe's keys are offensive balance, minimal turnovers and defensive attentiveness. Leading scorers Marcus Thornton and Tim Rusthoven must have help. W&M cannot afford a repeat of the 20-turnover performance against JMU last week, a result of the Dukes going with a smaller, quicker lineup and pressing the Tribe into mistakes.
"They defend you differently," Shaver said, "because they basically have five guys on the floor that can guard any position. So that's very difficult to play against sometimes. We feel like we know 'em well. I'm sure they feel like they know us really well. It'll probably just simply come down to the team that executes at the highest level."
WHERE: Richmond Coliseum.
•No. 4 George Mason vs. No. Drexel, 3:30 p.m.
•No. 2 Delaware vs. No. 7 Hofstra, 6 p.m.
•No. 3 James Madison vs. No. 6 William and Mary, 8:30 p.m.
•No. 1 Northeastern vs. Mason-Drexel winner, 2 p.m. (NBC Sports Network)
•Delaware-Hofstra winner vs. JMU-W&M winner, 4:30 p.m. (NBC Sports Network)
•Semifinal winners at 7 p.m. (NBC Sports Network)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun