HARRISONBURG - When James Madison finally begins its season Thursday night at UCLA, it will own a unique distinction among Division I men's basketball teams: The Dukes will be the only team in the country with a 0-0 record.
That's right. JMU will be the last of 347 schools to play this season, just behind Northern Kentucky, South Dakota and Wagner, which all are scheduled to open their seasons Wednesday. No. 13 UCLA - which tipped off Friday, the NCAA's official start date - will be hosting the Dukes in its third game at newly renovated Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.
"We did want to give UCLA a couple games under their belt," JMU coach Matt Brady joked. "We do feel good about our team; we wanted to make sure UCLA had an advantage to catch up on us here."
While the Bruins will be heavy favorites to exact their will on a mid-major challenger that has had few bright moments in its recent basketball history, Brady actually is quite satisfied with his 2012-13 team.
The fifth-year coach, who is 67-67 at Madison, said this is the deepest and most athletic team he's had. Brady spent much of his first weekly press conference Monday gushing about the Dukes' "synergy" and everyday effort at practice - characteristics he admitted have been missing in the past.
"There isn't a guy on this team - and this hasn't really happened since my first year - where I'm coaching effort," Brady said. "My first year, I didn't have to coach effort. Years 2, 3 and 4, I had to coach effort. If you've got to coach effort, you've got an issue."
Now, Brady said, he and his staff can concentrate on coaching X's-and-O's and basketball skills.
"From that perspective, I'm now even with the rest of the CAA," he said. "In fact, last year we weren't. We weren't healthy, we didn't have the know-how, we didn't have the want-to. Now we have that. And now it's going to come down to winning four-minute games, which I did my first year."
The good vibes might be stunted a bit by the big, bad Bruins - a legitimate Final Four contender in some analysts' opinions. But a chance to knock off a national power has only made the long wait to finally open their season seem lengthier for the Dukes.
"Obviously, we're all anxious," point guard Devon Moore said. "You know we want to get the season started and get ready to play, but it just gives us some more time so we can prepare for a big game that we face on Thursday."
College basketball players often aren't the best college basketball fans. While the sport's biggest games are on television, they're busy playing in their own. Last weekend, though, the Dukes parked on their couches and acted as fans.
Moore said he watched the close battle between reigning national champion Kentucky and Maryland, among an endless selection of other games on Friday night. Senior center Gene Swindle was particularly drawn to Syracuse's win over San Diego State in a game played on a decommissioned aircraft carrier Sunday afternoon.
"Basically, this weekend was all about basketball," Swindle said. "Since we had practice over the weekend, we just take it easy, watch TV. So that's what I was doing, just watching games."
The Dukes also watched UCLA - on film on Sunday, with a bit more of a discerning eye. They noticed that the Bruins are tall, irrepressibly athletic and stellar in transition, the last trait being quite uncharacteristic for teams coached by typical grinder Ben Howland.
If there's an advantage to JMU being a blank slate, it's that UCLA won't have much film on the Dukes, who will likely feature at least four players in their rotation who did not play a game last season: senior power forward Rayshawn Goins, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, and freshman guards Ron Curry, Charles Cooke and Andre Nations, and perhaps freshman power forward Taylor Bessick.
And there's the excitement factor.
UCLA has been on the Dukes' mind since news of this game broke in early July. JMU will be on the mind of the Bruins for, maybe, less than 48 hours.
The Dukes will leave Wednesday morning for Los Angeles and will bypass anything touristy in hopes of maintaining focus. The game won't start until 11 p.m. EST (8 p.m. on the West Coast), so JMU's body clocks may need some adjusting.
"Lots of sleep, lots of sleep," Moore said when asked how to cope with traveling across three time zones. "On the plane - sleep. When you get there, make sure you get some sleep and relax your body."
Moore said he's concerned the Dukes "might come out a little rusty," being this is their first live action, but he said the layoff also gives them the benefit of extra preparation time.
JMU tried to arrange a game before its Legends Classic opener at UCLA, but home dates with Winthrop and UNC-Greensboro had to wait until December because of scheduling conflicts, Brady said.
So, late Thursday night, in a historic arena, against a roster full of future pros, JMU will, at long last, begin the 2012-13 season.
"I think it's another advantage that they don't need," Brady said of UCLA being two games ahead of his Dukes. "It is what it is: It's a challenging game. If we played this on a neutral court in front of no people, it's a challenging game. But to play at Pauley Pavilion, where they have two games under their belt, it really helps them."
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