HARRISONBURG - As James Madison freshman Andre Nation waited to be interviewed after practice this week at the Convocation Center, he confidently drained shot after shot while circling the 3-point line. "There's another one!" he said as he launched one bomb, which obediently swished through.
Watching a few feet away, veteran teammate Devon Moore started growing weary of Nation's little shooting display. "Man, you've got the worst shot in America!" he cracked.
Moore, of course, was joking - Nation shoots a respectable 37.1 percent from the 3-point line. But even Nation knows that his offense isn't why he was recruited by basketball coach Matt Brady, nor is it the attribute James Madison will rely on most from him when the Dukes play San Jose State tonight in the Vegas Holiday Hoops tournament.
Defense is Nation's strength, and he'll get the first crack at guarding San Jose State guard James Kinney, whose 22.6 points per game ranks fifth in Division I.
"Coach Brady knew I was a defensive player when he recruited me, and I told him, the only thing I want to do on this team is play 'D' and win," Nation said. "I can do all the little stuff to contribute, but my main purpose is to play 'D,' and whatever challenge they give me, just accept that."
In both games this weekend at MGM Grand Garden Arena - it's inside the MGM Grand - the Dukes' biggest challenge may be defensively, where they haven't exactly thrived this season.
After playing San Jose State (5-4) at 11:30 p.m. EST today, Madison (4-6) plays its last game of 2012 - and its penultimate non-conference game - against San Diego (6-6) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Both opponents compete in the Western Athletic Conference, which has also hosted its league tournament in Las Vegas annually since 2011.
This holiday invitational was created, in part, because the Pac-12 tournament is being staged at the MGM Grand in March, and the league wanted one of its teams to play "a dress rehearsal game," San Diego coach Bill Grier said. The conference asked San Diego if it would play Pac-12 member Oregon State, and the Toreros agreed. (USD plays OSU tonight.)
Then, Grier reached out to Brady - the two know each other from when Brady was an assistant at St. Joseph's and Grier an assistant at Gonzaga in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Madison is on unfamiliar ground this weekend. The Dukes have never played either of their Vegas opponents, and they haven't played in Las Vegas since a game against UNLV in 1993, back when the Runnin' Rebels were the No. 1 team in the nation.
Tonight, JMU will meet not only Kinney, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound left-hander whom Brady called "as dynamic a perimeter scorer as we've faced all year," but also Chris Cunningham, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior forward who's nearly averaging a double-double (10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game). Kinney started his career at Ohio, got kicked off the Bobcats, transferred to Eastern Utah Community College, then went to SJSU last year. He's thriving this season in part, SJSU coach George Nessman said, because Cunningham draws so many double teams. Cunningham will probably also draw multiple defenders from the Dukes, Brady said.
"We're going into this game with the notion that Kinney's going to take 20 shots, because it's almost impossible for them not to get him 20 shots," Brady said. "It's really Cunningham that we feel like we've got to do a better job on limiting his possessions and his touches."
Less than 20 hours later, the Dukes play a San Diego team that shoots 45.8 percent from the floor, a stat that hasn't been a promising sign. Madison is 0-4 against teams who shoot at least 45 percent, with an average losing margin of 17.8 points - losses to UCLA (100-70), North Dakota State (66-44), Miami of Ohio (76-58) and Richmond (83-82 in overtime).
Madison is allowing teams to shoot 46.1 percent from the field, which is 303rd out of 345 Division I teams. Its 3-point defense of 41.3 percent is 338th. San Diego figures to test both those numbers, as the Toreros average just under 16 3-point field goal attempts per game - not a huge number, but certainly enough to make their overall 45.8 field-goal percentage look even sturdier.
The Dukes' defense has gotten better recently. In the last five games - all at the Convocation Center - four opponents have shot under 43 percent from the floor and under 36 percent from the 3-point line. (Richmond, which shot 57.8 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from 3, was the exception.)
Lately, JMU has been switching all screens except at center, which players said has helped. Moore also said the Dukes have been effective defensively when applying full-court pressure.
"I think pressing slows down a lot of teams from shooting 3s, and it also makes teams shoot a lot of hurry-up 3s," Moore said. "So just pressing and switching everything, and just being up the [3-point] line and being able to be in a shooter's face."
Madison's improved defense has coincided with its best basketball. The Dukes are 3-2 in their last five, with both losses coming by one point.
"We've certainly seen our team improving in key areas," Brady said. "I think we're still a ways away from fulfilling our potential. We need to continue to improve, especially at the defensive end."
This weekend, that starts with Nation - but the slick freshman will need help.
"I might start off on Kinney, but they run a play and they down-screen for him, we're switching, so I might not be on Kinney the whole game," he said. "Sometimes we play a little bit too much help - and that's our bad, really.
But it's going to get better as we get along. It's going to get way better."
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