DAYTON, Ohio — There were more than four minutes remaining and James Madison led by only seven points, but as far as Dukes freshman Andre Nation was concerned, the game was over. A guard for LIU Brooklyn drove to the basket and Nation swatted away a layup attempt.
Nation turned and pantomimed what he’s made a signature move, yanking an imaginary zipper toward the ceiling. “Zip ’em up,” he explained a day after the Dukes disposed of LIU Brooklyn in an NCAA men’s basketball tournament play-in game. “It’s like zipping up a bodybag.”
It’s a bold gesture, to be sure, borrowed from YouTube rap battle videos. But it also might be the kind of confidence Nation and his teammates need heading into what appears to be an impossible matchup against top-seeded Indiana Friday. By now the Dukes certainly don’t need anyone else to remind them that a 16-seed has never beaten a No. 1.
“It is a confident team,” Coach Matt Brady said of his Dukes players. “As I’ve said to the team, we’re going to have to play great and we’re going to have to hope that they don’t play great. That’s the nature of the game at this level.”
With a big personality off the court and a fiery work ethic on it, Nation’s growth has in many ways mirrored that of his team. Though he’s a freshman, the Dukes have become a squad in Nation’s image: an emphasis on defense, selfless, the ability to score when needed and not deterred by any team with more hype and talent.
“I don’t think we gonna change up anything we’ve been doing,” Nation said Thursday. “What we’ve been doing has been working.”
But what they’ve done has never been tested against a team like Indiana. The Dukes have no one to match up against 7-foot Cody Zeller. They have no one as talented as junior Victor Oladipo, the DeMatha graduate and former Washington Post All-Met honoree. They have no one who can move like freshman Yogi Ferrell or shoot like senior Christian Watford.
“The pressure isn’t on us,” JMU’s Rayshawn Goins said of the fourth-ranked Hoosiers, who spent much of the season as the nation’s top-ranked team. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country. We just got to go out and play our best basketball.”
The Dukes went with four and even five guards at times against the Blackbirds on Wednesday. They won’t have that luxury Friday, but they don’t have many options. At 6 feet 6 and 265 pounds, Goins is a big body in the middle, but with senior Gene Swindle missing the tournament with a torn meniscus, the Dukes have only two seldom-used post players: sophomore Enoch Hood and freshman Taylor Bessick.
The Dukes will hope their guards can play big, which means they’ll need a strong performance from Nation, a 6-5 guard with a long, athletic body. He finished Wednesday’s game with 14 points, seven rebounds, five blocks and four assists. But his biggest impact often comes on defense.
“You don’t get freshmen who want to play defense,” JMU senior Devon Moore said. “Usually you got a freshman who wants to come in and score. He actually wants to stick the best player, he wants to dive on the floor for loose balls, take a charge or get a block. It’s amazing to see his will at a young age.”
Nation will spend a good chunk of Friday’s game tasked with guarding Oladipo, perhaps the nation’s top college player. “He does a lot of things well, whether it be on-ball defending or blocking shots or things like that,” Oladipo said. “So we’re going to have to match his intensity.”
The Dukes studied the Hoosiers on tape Thursday morning and Brady said he’s never seen his players more focused. Indiana, too, reviewed James Madison, watching the Dukes’ CAA championship game and their win over LIU Brooklyn. The Hoosiers were complimentary of what they saw of JMU, but Dukes players were conflicted as to whether they wanted the Hoosiers to be well-versed in James Madison basketball.
“I hope not, man,” Goins said. “We can use that to our advantage. We want them to come out and try to take us lightly.”
“I hope they know all about us,” Nation countered, “so they know they got to play their best. We don’t want to play an Indiana team that’s gonna come out and think they’re just gonna roll all over us.
“We want them at their best,” he added. “In order to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”