New Dukes Worth Watching

Josh Walfish, Publisher
Dukes of JMU

HARRISONBURG — In many ways, the team James Madison women’s basketball coach Sean O’Regan rolls out on Nov. 10 will be similar to the one he had last season.

Eight of the 10 players who ended last season healthy return this year, and seven of those eights have already played significant minutes for the Dukes. JMU even returns rising redshirt sophomore Kayla Cooper-Williams from a knee injury that forced her to miss all last season.

The coaches and most fans understand what they can expect from that nine-person veteran core that is returning.

However, there are four other players who will likely see some time on the court next season — two freshmen and two transfers who sat out last season due to NCAA rules — who fans have never seen play in person. The early returns from the coaching staff were positive before they hit the road recruiting last week.

JMU’s two freshmen have drawn some of the most praise from the coaches because of how prepared they were when they arrived in June for workouts. The two offer contrasting skill sets, but they will both fight for playing time immediately because of their talents.

Tori Harris, a 6-foot guard from Dix Hills, N.Y., is already one of the best pure shooters on this team. She was a scoring machine in high school, but more impressive was how efficient she was as a senior in leading her team within two wins of the state tournament.

Harris is the type of player who fits the mold of some of the past greats at JMU, although O’Regan said last month that coaches don’t always have a good sense of potential until the freshmen are actually on campus.

Harris comes from a basketball family, all five of her older siblings played Division I basketball, including brother Tobias, who plays for the Detroit Pistons. She was described by her high school coach and teammates as the hardest worker on the team and someone willing to do the dirty work, whether it be taking charges on defense or diving on the floor for a loose rebound.

Her offensive prowess is complemented by the lock-down defense that Brey Bellerand provides the Dukes. Every conversation about the Emerson, N.J., native centers around her footwork and defensive instincts that will make it difficult to take her off the court.

Bellerand is only 5-foot-10, but she is listed as a forward and said in May that she feels comfortable guarding all five positions on the court. She will not be a prolific shot blocker and she might not accumulate a lot of steals this season, but her defensive fundamentals are impressive and that might mean more to O’Regan than any statistic that fans can track.

Bellerand is not going to be a dominant scorer, although she is working on improving her offensive skill set. Her shot has improved during the three weeks of workouts the Dukes had last month, but Bellerand will earn her playing time by keeping the other team off the scoreboard, not lighting it up herself.

Virginia Tech transfer Kelly Koshuta brings some needed size to the Dukes’ frontcourt with her stocky 6-foot-2 frame. The rising redshirt sophomore from Vienna was a strong defender on the scout team last year for the Dukes, and that same tenacity will bring a different level of toughness on the court.

She also showed a knack for sinking long jump shots during practices last season, which will help JMU stretch the floor in a way it really couldn’t do in 2016-17.

Much like Amber Porter last season, conditioning will be something that limits Koshuta. She was the slowest player on the team last season, and the Dukes have only gotten quicker this year. Given O’Regan’s desire to push the floor whenever possible, Koshuta could be better as a burst of energy in the middle of the quarter.

Fans will need to wait to see Debra Ferguson in a JMU uniform because the rising sophomore has to sit out the fall semester after transferring from Virginia in the middle of last season. The Amherst County product is another big body for O’Regan to use in the interior to help bolster JMU’s frontline defense.

Ferguson’s defense in practice last season was critical to helping the Dukes forwards find success against some of the taller teams they faced in the Colonial Athletic Association. She has good footwork considering her 6-foot-3 frame, and she can block shots without fouling.

O’Regan will be challenged to integrate Ferguson into the rotation at the end of non-conference play, especially if JMU finds a lineup that works well for it. However, she’s a consistent scoring threat on the interior, and that fills JMU’s biggest need entering this season.

Jackie Benitez, who recently announced she will be transferring to JMU from Siena, will also make an impact as a member of the scout team this season. The same skills that will make Benitez a dangerous player in the CAA in her final two seasons of eligibility are what makes her an important practice player for this year’s squad.

Benitez is a long, athletic guard who can push many of the younger guards on the Dukes’ roster and be a good stand-in for the types of guards JMU will face during its difficult non-conference slate.

Once she’s eligible, however, Benitez could be the ideal replacement for rising senior Hailee Barron. The two share many of the same characteristics — good shooters who use their length very effectively on defense — but in some ways, Benitez is a better version of Barron.

Benitez is able to create more steals for herself with her quick hands, as opposed to Barron, whose deflections either resulted in someone else getting a steal or the ball bouncing out of bounds.

Benitez is also a more complete offensive player than Barron with her ability to drive to the basket and finish through contact. Barron has scored 76.1 percent of her points on 3-pointers, and has made a mere 23 two-point baskets in her first three seasons.

O’Regan will be faced with plenty of difficult decisions in the four months leading up to the first game of the season, but he said last month he is excited to make those tough calls because it means the program is in a good place for the future.

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