Towson opens Colonial Athletic Association tournament play tonight at 6 p.m. with a quarterfinal against James Madison at Baltimore Arena.
To get to know the Tigers' opponent a little bit, we asked five questions to Nick Sunderland, who covers JMU for the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va. Nick's work can also be found on James Madison's Rivals.com sits, DukesofJMU.com.
James Madison won last year's CAA tournament, but this year's Dukes have a different look. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Nick Sunderland: Experience is probably the biggest difference for JMU. Last year's squad started four seniors down the stretch. The Dukes are now among the youngest teams in the nation, with sixth-year senior Andrey Semenov being their only upperclassmen to log meaningful minutes. But when it comes to strengths, defense is still the key for Madison. Sophomore Ron Curry is as good of a defensive point guard as you'll find in the CAA, and wings Charles Cooke and Andre Nation are also great one-on-one defenders. The Dukes are blessed with great length at the guard positions. No one on this team is under 6-foot-4.
Now, for the negatives. Madison is simply not a good shooting team. As of Friday morning, the Dukes rank 347th of out the NCAA's 351 Division I teams in 3-point field-goal shooting at 27.8 percent. Semenov -- a 6-7 sharpshooting stretch forward -- is the outlier in this category. But the team's dismal long-range shooting, among other offensive deficiencies, has made JMU prone to long scoring droughts at times -- particularly away from the Convocation Center. Late-game free-throw shooting has also been a struggle.
As you reported earlier this week, Andre Nation has been reinstated after being suspended by coach Matt Brady for academic reasons. Tell us a little about Nation's game, and how important is it for JMU to have him in the lineup?
NS: Nation's game and personality are both quite unique. Coach Matt Brady clearly got a steal in terms of athleticism and on-court intangibles when he recruited Nation out of Tampa, Fla., three years ago. The 6-5 sophomore wing is by far JMU's most explosive player and seems to be good for at least one highlight-reel dunk on a nightly basis. He can also create off the dribble, but like most of his teammates is still a work in progress when it comes to jump shooting.
What truly makes Nation special, though, is his defense. He's capable of defending all five positions -- at least in this league -- and has basketball instincts that really can't be taught. And this guy LOVES to trash talk when he's on the court. He's by far the most colorful character on this team. Nation clearly does not fit the "dumb jock" stereotype. When it comes to his suspensions, I think he's just a young guy who has made some regrettable decisions off the court. Through all of that, he remains pretty well liked by his teammates. In fact, Semenov -- the team's elder statesman -- said Nation holds players accountable during practice more than any other player at JMU.
Do the Dukes have anyone who can match up with CAA Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon?
NS: Nation is the guy who will try his hand there, but Benimon has still managed to average 22 points and 15.5 rebounds per game in Towson's two victories over JMU this season. It will be a group effort to slow Benimon most of the time though. Plan on seeing lots of double teams from the Dukes.
Obviously this is the tournament's first year in Baltimore after spending decades down in Richmond. Do you get the sense that enough fans from the southern schools will make the trip for it to be a success?
NS: That's hard for me to say at this point; I've only been living in the "South" for a little over a month now. But do I think attendance will be anywhere close to what it has been in recent years at the Richmond Coliseum? Probably not. Frankly, coming from a Big Ten school where I attended college at the University of Wisconsin, I've been pretty disappointed in how lightly attended JMU's home games have been this season. There's certainly not a big-time buzz around this team entering postseason play.
Prediction time: Are we going to see an upset Saturday, or will Towson have too much firepower?
I'll recuse myself from making an actual prediction, but I will say this: The only way the Dukes can keep this game competitive is if they stay somewhat close in the rebounding battle, limit Towson's transition opportunities and manage to make some 3s. Those are a lot of ifs, not even factoring in Benimon's immense impact on the game. Towson is experienced, playing close to home and its senior class has persevered though a lot. I just find it hard to see Madison coming out with a win on Saturday night.