James Madison Dukes it out for CAA supremacy
Two hundred thirty years after the American Revolution, James Madison is trying to toss the monarchy out once again.
The Old Dominion Monarchs have reigned over the Colonial Athletic Association with a heavy hand ever since they joined the league in 1991. The Monarchs have blitzed through conference play for an undefeated record on eight occasions, amassing a 238-16 regular-season conference record along the way. Their 15 consecutive league championships is by far the longest streak in the land.
Nowhere else has one team so dominated its own kingdom. Oh, foes have staged assaults on the Monarchs' castle in recent years. But the queen (ODU coach Wendy Larry, that is) and her court have always been able to squash any signs of rebellion down the stretch. Old Dominion has never lost a CAA tournament game, rattling off 47 straight wins in the league's postseason tournament.
That's 15 years and 15 titles in a row. That's 15 automatic NCAA Tournament bids, often meaning the rest of the league has to stay home in March with no at-large bids passed their way.
But this season, the winds change are blowing through the Colonial kingdom. This year, more than any in recent memory, the queen sits unsteady on her throne as the subjects scale the castle walls. And an institution named after one of America's most influential founding fathers is leading the revolution, as James Madison is poised to make a play for the CAA championship and a trip to the biggest dance of them all.
"What Wendy Larry and her teams have done over the years is tremendous," said Kenny Brooks, James Madison's fifth-year coach. "They have had a remarkable run and the rest of us are trying to catch them. They've helped put the CAA on the map and have always represented us well."
But you get the impression that No. 25 James Madison (22-2), as well as Delaware and Hofstra, is ready for some new representation. After all, ODU's reign hasn't been very democratic.
Through Tuesday, James Madison sits in first place in the Colonial Athletic Association with an unblemished 13-0 record. That includes an impressive 79-50 win over Old Dominion on Feb. 1. The Dukes, who have four players averaging at least 10.3 points and nine players averaging at least 10 minutes, have already beaten Delaware and Hofstra as well.
But the Dukes aren't sizing themselves for rings and tiaras just yet. Before the regular season wraps up March 1, there are trips to Delaware (Feb. 22) and ODU (Feb. 25), and the conference tournament (March 8-11) will be on Delaware's home court.
"This team takes things one day at a time," claimed Brooks, a point guard for the James Madison men's team from 1987 to '91. "We haven't won anything yet. These players stay focused and are very mature."
They should be. James Madison is the most experienced team in the country with four seniors and a junior who have been in the starting lineup ever since they set foot on campus. At last count, they had combined for 394 career starts (through Feb. 11).
That helps explain James Madison's success in a 20-win season that has seen the Dukes fall to only Auburn and George Washington, a rivalry that probably dates back to the Continental Congress.
"The experience helps our preparation the most," said Brooks, who took the Dukes on a trip to Italy last summer to bring his team even closer together. "We know about us, we know what we need to do so we can spend more time zeroing in on what our opponents try to do. We have also developed a trust that in tight games and in tough situations we know we can work it out."
It helps when that senior class includes 6-foot-3 center Meredith Alexis, who Brooks calls the most dominant player in the CAA. Alexis, who leads the Dukes in both scoring (18.5 ppg) and rebounding (11.7 rpg) probably could have gone to a big-time program, but after slipping through the cracks four years ago, she has thrived at JMU.
"We want to win a title and go to the NCAA so bad this year," admitted Alexis, who is on pace to graduate as the school's all-time leading scorer (she currently has 1,598 points and a school-record and CAA-record 1,211 boards). "We want to make this the most special year in school history."
It would be even sweeter considering a disappointing snub from the NCAA selection committee a year ago, despite a 24-7 record. The Dukes were threatening to win the league last March before a late-season injury to starting guard Lesley Dickinson sidetracked their title hopes.
"It just serves as extra motivation for us," Alexis said. "We knew we were NCAA Tournament material last year. Seeing ODU win the CAA championship again was a heartbreaker."
Dickinson is back for her senior season and has stayed injury free. She is responsible for the second-highest scoring effort in school history: 34 points in an overtime win against Hofstra a couple seasons ago. This season, she's one of four current players with a 30-point effort on her résumé and also one of four current Dukes in the 1,000-point club, the most in the country this year from one team. As a result, opponents have to pick their poison.
"We can be hard to guard," said Brooks, who has guided JMU to its first ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 since 1988 (the Dukes are No. 25 for the second straight week). "You can double-team Alexis, but then you leave Tamera Young one-on-one, and she's probably the most talented player in the league."
Young is a 6-2 guard who got a tryout with the U.S. national under-20 team last summer. Much to the chagrin of CAA opponents, Young gained a ton of confidence from the experience. She's averaging 17.3 points this season and is JMU's best 3-point shooter (36 percent, 24-for-73). Young, the lone junior in the starting lineup, has the team's best performance of the season, a 33-point night in January when both William & Mary couldn't stop her.
"She's more efficient this year, smarter and not just relying on her athleticism," Brooks said. "She was an all-defensive team performer in the league last year because she is long and provides good help."
Senior forward Shirley McCall is putting together an impressive campaign to join Young on this season's all-defensive team. In the ODU victory, McCall held all-conference performer TJ Jordan scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting.
"[McCall] is physical and explosive and probably the quickest player we have," said Brooks, who has led JMU to 24 consecutive wins at home, the third-longest streak in the country. "She's so feisty and has the versatility to guard a point guard or power forward. I think she's the best defender in the league."
That's a lot of talent and a lot of firepower. Someone has to run the show and keep everybody happy. Enter senior point guard Andrea Benvenuto.
"I call her my 'Mini-Me,' " Brooks boasts. "She's probably the most improved player we've ever had at JMU. She had to start at the point four years ago with essentially a team of six freshmen. It was a long season. But we spent a lot of time in the gym working on her court vision and her shooting. Now she's our engine; if she plays well, we play well."
Benvenuto -- who has dished out 166 assists this season and owns an impressive 2.21 assist-to-turnover ratio -- knew she would get thrown into the pressure cooker when she first arrived at JMU from Canada. Playing for a coach who was a point guard himself meant Benvenuto would be subjected to closer scrutiny. It was a challenge she welcomed.
"Coach was always telling us as freshmen that we had the 'deer in the headlights' look on our faces," said Benvenuto, whose scoring and field-goal percentage have gone up in each of her four years. "We were probably nervous and intimidated, but we worked hard and tried to prove ourselves. I give coach a lot of credit because he didn't see who we were; he saw who we could become."
Today, coach and point guard are always talking and texting each other about basketball. Benvenuto credits Brooks with making her the player she is today and has become an avid student of the game. She watches basketball on TV whenever she can, especially if fellow Canadian Steve Nash is playing.
"I like watching Nash for his court sense," said Benvenuto, who has 15 games this season with a least six assists. "It's amazing what he does with the ball. At JMU we want a similar tempo that his Phoenix Suns have. We are athletic and deep and well-conditioned. We want to push the ball and get easy baskets."
These are heady times in Harrisonburg, Va. James Madison is on track to fulfill its destiny of winning a Colonial championship and dancing in the NCAA Tournament. But coach Brooks is quick to temper any premature coronation of a new queen.
"I recruited these kids to win a championship," admitted Brooks, who has watched his first full recruiting class blossom this season. "But we are not there yet and we understand that. We believe we can compete and we believe we can win, but we still have to play the games one at a time.
"You take someone like Meredith Alexis, who has done everything for this university and collected so many accolades. She would still trade them all for one more shot at a title."
And one shot is all James Madison might get. That's all that Delaware and Hofstra may get as well. It appears likely that the Colonial will get more than one NCAA bid this year but why take the chance of finishing second in the conference tournament?
That's the reality in a non-BCS conference one off-night, one bad bounce and the dream dies. Only four non-BCS at-large bids were handed out last year for the NCAA Tournament, and none went to the second-place team in the Colonial.
That certainly weighs on the mind of Delaware coach Tina Martin and her star players Tyresa Smith and Chrissy Fisher. They beat Kentucky earlier this season and are in good position to win the CAA as hosts of this year's tournament.
Hofstra rookie coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey and the Pride missed an opportunity in the regular season to beat JMU, ODU and Delaware. But Hofstra, with stars Cigi McCollin and Vanessa Gidden, has the best nonconference win of the bunch by beating Michigan State.
Of course, the Colonial uprising might fall short if the Monarchs are saving their best basketball for last and history repeats itself with another CAA tournament sweep for ODU.
And so the insurrection surges forward. The time is rapidly approaching for James Madison to prove its mettle when it matters most -- in the postseason.
"He [Brooks] keeps us focused and makes sure we play to our potential every night," Alexis said. "We know all too well that one game can ruin an entire season."
Added Benvenuto: "The ODU win in the regular season proved we are one of the top teams in the CAA. But we still feel like the underdog. They are still ODU and they are still the champs. We haven't beaten them in the tournament yet so there is still work left to do."Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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