Northeastern (20-11, 14-4) vs James Madison (19-14, 11-7) – NBC Sports Network
Two teams picked to finish in the middle of the pack will square off in Monday’s CAA Championship.
It just goes to show you shouldn’t doubt teams with veteran guards. Jon Lee and Joel Smith are the head of Northeastern’s program. Likewise for Devon Moore and AJ Davis, who have scored 70 of James Madison’s 130 points so far in the tournament.
The regular season CAA champion Huskies completed a wondrous 24-point comeback against George Mason to advance to Monday’s Championship.
It was the largest comeback win in the program’s 93-year history.
When the Huskies pulled to within 12 at halftime, a second-half run seemed eminent.
Joel Smith, a first team All-CAA selection, was scoreless at halftime. For the conference leader in effective field goal percentage (60.8) and true shooting percentage (65.6%), that wasn’t going to persist.
Devon Moore hit two free throws with 3.7 seconds on the clock to give JMU a 58-57 win over Delaware.
It will be JMU’s first appearance in the CAA Championship since 1997.
But about the game…
This final is unique, and there’s more to it than the fact that these programs haven’t played on the big stage in so long.
It’s the first matchup of a tournament that features two teams that met just once in the regular season. Small sample sizes make for intriguing results.
On February 20th, Jon Lee broke down the JMU press, drove baseline and found freshman David Walker, who hit a game-winning 12-foot jumper with two seconds left to give the Huskies a 66-64 victory.
Northeastern won because its offense was more efficient (20-of-41 from the field, 8-of-15 from three, 18-of-20 from the line).
Offensive efficiency from Northeastern has been the story all season (citation: Brian Mull).
At that point, Joel Smith was still shaking off an ankle injury he suffered the week before. He scored six points and committed four turnovers.
JMU held a four-point advantage in points off turnovers in the first meeting. The Dukes also held a 19-2 advantage in second-chance opportunities.
The game featured seven ties and 10 lead changes.
Both teams employ guard-heavy lineups, and rely on long, rangy defenders to create steals. David Walker and Andre Nation are two terrific freshmen guards who create fast break and transition opportunities.
Typically, each team wins the turnover margin and capitalizes on the opposition’s mistakes.
Playing their third game in three days, it seems unlikely that the Dukes will recreate that huge 17-point advantage in second-chance points. But if the Dukes can win the rebounding advantage again, it will go a long way.
If the Madison faithful show out in the Coliseum, this will be a virtual home game for the Dukes. Indubitably, they’ll have most of the crowd support, but the question is how much of a crowd will there be.
That won’t phase the Huskies, who have played well on the road all year. They defeated Ohio Valley champion Belmont in Alaska over Thanksgiving, and that was without Jon Lee.
Close games have played right into the Huskies’ paws this season. 23 of their 31 games have been decided by seven points or less, and they’re 15-8 in those contests.
Ultimately, it will probably come down to the secondary players – the stars (Smith and Lee, Davis and Moore) will get theirs.
In the first game, Walker and fellow freshman Zach Stahl combined to score 20 points for Northeastern.
JMU’s Charles Cooke scored 10 points, but JMU’s other three freshmen tallied just four points total.
Hopefully that provides a bit of insight into this game. Now, it’s time to pick sides.
This is where having a bye into the semifinal will truly serve Northeastern. The Huskies got over the long layoff and jitters yesterday, and should be considerably fresher than a JMU team playing its third game in three days.
Matt Brady can only hope that Rayshawn Goins and Alioune Diouf can give some extra minutes after being limited to 14 and 17 yesterday. Expect Diouf and Davis to split duty on versatile 6’8″ wing Quincy Ford.
Northeastern has played well on the road in clutch situations all season, and got its slow start out of the way yesterday. This will be a close game, and this season, there’s no one you’d rather have with the game on the line than Joel Smith. He’s continually hit big shot after big shot.
Smith and Lee deliver what JJ Barea, Matt Janning and Chaisson Allen never could: a CAA Tournament championship, and an NCAA Tournament berth.
Huskies 70, Duke Dogs 65