Story by Chris Graham
He tried to play it off like it wasn’t a big deal – but if it wasn’t a big deal, what was Dean Keener doing high-fiving students after his James Madison basketball team opened the 2007-2008 season with an impressive 100-88 win over Siena on Nov. 9?
“I didn’t see that. I didn’t know that he did that,” forward Kyle Swanston said when a reporter asked him his thoughts on the coach’s obvious emotion.
“With his record and history that he’s had here, that’s a big win for us, and that’s a big win for him,” teammate Juwann James said. “And just coming out on our home court against that team and showing that effort out there and getting the win, obviously he’s pretty excited.
“But you know, like he said and like we feel, we can’t be too excited. We can celebrate this win tonight, but for the next eight or nine days, we’ve got to get ready for the next game. It’s a long season,” James said.
Long seasons, yes. Keener knows about those – with season records of 6-22, 5-23 and 7-23 to show for his first three years of effort in Harrisonburg. But things seemed to be on the upswing even before the end of the third straight disappointing campaign last spring – with St. Joseph’s transfer Abdulai Jalloh about to become eligible after sitting out his transfer year and the growth and development of players like Swanston, James and point guard Pierre Carter becoming more and more apparent each time out.
“Dean’s put together a team that’s got a lot of weapons. It’s a very difficult team to guard,” Siena coach Fran McCaffery said. “You can go man, you can go zone, you can press, you can mix it, and we were trying to mix it. We didn’t want to give them a steady diet of any one thing. But normally you can focus on one or two, maybe three players to stop – and this team’s got a lot of people who can score.”
JMU broadcast color analyst Karl Magenhofer has been feeling the feeling himself – he told Keener before last week’s opener that he didn’t think the coach had anything to worry about heading into the season.
“I know that this has been stated as a make-or-break season for him. But I think that he had to know that it would be a different kind of team this year, and that he had more guys he could rely on – and he certainly had one more go-to guy, or at least a guy who was willing to try to put the team on his back at times,” Magenhofer said, referring to Jalloh, who scored 15 points, including 12 in the second half, in the Siena win.
Keener had praise for Jalloh, praise for his team’s offensive production, good feelings about the effort on defense – but he knows he will need a lot more of all of the above to be successful.
“We just told our guys, Look, winning certainly cures a lot of things, but playing hard and playing with emotion and passion … I’ve told the guys, Win or lose, we want fans to pay when they come in, but we want them to enjoy watching us so much that they feel like they have to pay on the way out,” Keener said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.