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Perspective | They’ve won 31 games and beaten Michigan State. Who wants to face JMU?

Perspective | They’ve won 31 games and beaten Michigan State. Who wants to face JMU?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Mark Byington wanted to open the season with his James Madison men’s basketball team by getting on a bus and playing someone local. Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland — a program with enough funds to pay the Dukes for coming to its place but close enough that it wasn’t an arduous journey.

“Michigan State was a game I didn’t want,” Byington said.

But the James Madisons of the college basketball world don’t get to call their shots. What they could do was call in a favor. One of Byington’s assistant coaches is Matt Bucklin, who just happens to be the nephew of legendary Spartans coach Tom Izzo. Michigan State needed an opener. James Madison needed some cash.

“They did us a favor,” Byington said.

Some favor. Four months later, Byington’s Dukes are in the NCAA tournament for the first time in his four years as coach in Harrisonburg, Va., and for just the second time in 30 seasons. On Friday night in New York, the 12th-seeded Dukes will put up their gaudy 31-3 record against fifth-seeded Wisconsin (22-13) in a South Region first-round game at Barclays Center.

It is an accomplishment for a coach and a program on the rise. And the inkling that something like this could happen was realized on that November night in East Lansing, Mich., against an Izzo team that was ranked fourth in the nation to start the season.

“Four or five minutes into that game,” Byington said, “I thought: ‘These guys are ready to play. They’re not going to back down.’ ”

Each of the 68 teams that fill the bracket has a story. Given the current era in which players transfer at will and coaches have to re-recruit their own players every spring, those stories are increasingly diverse, and teams are inherently less coherent. Byington was welcoming T.J. Bickerstaff, a 6-foot-9 forward who had played previously at Drexel and Boston College. Point guard Michael Green III came from Bryant via Robert Morris. Byington was able to convince the previous year’s leading scorer, Terrence Edwards Jr., to stick around.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know how these guys are going to fit together,’ ” Byington said.

The disparate Dukes bonded on a preseason trip to Italy. And on opening night in Michigan, in a game their coach didn’t want to play, they beat the Spartans, 79-76, on Raekwon Horton’s three-pointer with less than 10 seconds left in overtime.

By mid-November, the Dukes were ranked. When they won a Sun Belt Conference matchup at Louisiana Lafayette in their first game of 2024, they were 14-0.

“This is about as much pressure as I’ve ever been a part of in a basketball program,” Byington said. “… Every single team that we played, whether they were good or bad, you were seeing the best that they had. So there was pressure that was coming with that, but what was also coming with that was us being able to deal with pressure.”

This is a language Byington speaks. After a solid playing career at UNC Wilmington, Byington went to the University of Virginia with designs on getting a doctorate in sports psychology. As a side gig, he helped out with the basketball program. He found he couldn’t stay away — “I didn’t realize how much I would miss the competition” — and eventually took an assistant coaching job at the College of Charleston. The typical itinerant coaching path followed. A season back at Virginia, then a return to Charleston.

When legendary coach Bobby Cremins came out of retirement to take over the Cougars in 2006, he needed a staff. A friend of a friend who lived locally went out of his way to sing Byington’s praises.

“I had been out of the game for six years, and Mark really helped with the transition,” Cremins said. “I gave him a lot of responsibilities. And you can tell right away: He’s really bright.”

Midway through Cremins’s sixth season at Charleston, he became ill and stepped away from coaching. Byington took over as the interim coach. Late in the season, the Cougars played at Kent State. Charleston fell behind early, and the Golden Flashes were shredding Byington’s man-to-man defense.

“I remember watching them and watching his demeanor, and he was unflappable,” said Tom Kleinlein, a Kent State administrator at the time. “He went to a zone, and he just changed the whole flow of the game. They just shut us down and beat us, and I was like, ‘Man, that guy did a really good job of adjusting in the flow of the game.’ ”

Funny how things work out. Just more than a year later, Kleinlein was the athletic director at Georgia Southern. He was looking for a new basketball coach.

“He was a name that was stuck in the back of my brain,” Kleinlein said.

Georgia Southern had won 20 games in a season just three times over the previous two decades. Byington pulled that off four times in six years. But in any rise, there are disappointments. His best team had its season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Byington can still see — over and over — the chances he had in the past. In his second year at Georgia Southern, the Eagles played Georgia State in the championship game of the Sun Belt tournament. Down two late, Byington’s team had two looks at three-pointers. If one goes in, the Eagles go to the tournament.

“The first one was from a freshman, and I had the perfect viewpoint on it,” he said. “I said, ‘That thing is absolutely going in.’ ”

It hit off the back iron. The Eagles got the ball out of bounds.

“The second one wasn’t quite as good in execution,” Byington said. “But a lot of times, those are the threes that go in.”

Instead, back iron, again.

Mark Byington is 47. He has coached enough and seen enough to understand these opportunities must be cherished. That is why it’s almost criminal to bring up the very large elephant residing in Harrisonburg at the moment: If the Dukes make a run in the tournament — or even if they don’t — won’t some bigger, shinier program make a run at their coach?

“Mark can handle anything that’s thrown his way,” Kleinlein said.

“He’s very even-keeled and just has a really nice demeanor about him — and really knows the game,” Cremins said. “Just has a great feel for the game.”

This has become a perennial problem at JMU as the Dukes have had success across the athletic department and risen to the Football Bowl Subdivision on the gridiron. It shouldn’t be the kind of school that loses a top coach to, say, East Carolina, which is where former football coach Mike Houston headed in late 2018. The Dukes lost Houston’s successor, Curt Cignetti, to Indiana this offseason.

Wouldn’t it make sense for a power conference school with an opening — and there are about a bazillion openings — to at least talk with Byington?

“It would take something incredible to get me out of this place,” Byington said. “I’m happy here. My son’s happy here. I could see myself retiring here. If it’s something that excites me as much as this, I’ll look at it. But it’s not something I’m chasing.”

With the tournament ahead, that’s the right response. James Madison’s season began with a game the coach didn’t want. Now, he relishes them all.

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