Junior forward Ryan Pearson (24) attempts to box out James Madison’s Denzel Bowles (21), the conference’s leading rebounder. Photo by: JMU Athletics Communications

Halfway through the Colonial Athletic Association schedule, the George Mason University men’s basketball team enters the final stretch of their regular season. Key matchups against CAA leaders Virginia Commonwealth University and Hofstra University as well as a big game against Old Dominion University for Homecoming make the road for the Patriots that much more challenging.

With five weeks left until the CAA tournament, it is ironic that there are five top contending teams that are making a run at an NCAA tournament berth. Over this next month, we will take an in-depth look at James Madison University, Hofstra, ODU, VCU and Mason to better understand what they bring to the table in preparation for the CAA tournament which begins March 4. This week’s CAA spotlight team is the James Madison University Dukes.

In the last meeting between the JMU Dukes and the Patriots, Mason came away with a narrow 75-73 victory in Harrisonburg in what proved to be a momentum- changing game. A pair of clutch threes by senior guard Isaiah Tate added to a late run by Mason in the second half which proved to be the deciding factor in the Patriots road win against JMU. However, if it wasn’t for the Patriots late run, the outcome of the game could have gone the other way.

JMU poses threats to Mason specifically in their frontcourt. Senior forward Denzel Bowles provides size down low for the Dukes. The 6-foot-10-inch, 260-pound Bowles is a point-scoring and rebounding machine. He is runner-up in the CAA in scoring with 17.8 points per game and rebounding with 9.2 rebounds per game.

Against Mason, he had 21 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks and four assists in one of his best performances of the year. Bowles’ size brings matchup problems especially when he can draw fouls and get the opponent’s big men in foul trouble. He has a knack for scoring around the basket, leading the CAA in field goal percentage with 59 percent from the floor and can shoot from nearly anywhere within the arc. According to Fox Sports Summer 2010 rankings, Bowles is a projected NBA draft pick and is a prime candidate for CAA player of the year.

Alongside Bowles in the Dukes frontcourt, junior forward Rayshawn Goins is a perfect complement. His 6-foot-6-inch, 275-pound frame is fit for banging in the post and he provides a defensive presence in the paint. In his first game for JMU, he posted a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds against the No. 3 Kansas State University Wildcats. In the Jan. 22 meeting against the Patriots, Goins contributed a near double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds in a losing effort. The former McDonald’s All-American nominee is second on the Dukes in scoring with 11.0 points per game and rebounding with 7.8 rebounds per game.

The JMU backcourt, though not as lethal as their frontcourt, has its share of game-changers. Junior guard Anthony (“Humpty”) Hitchens and sophomore guard Devon Moore can score but are mostly distributors to Bowles and Goins. Hitchens provides the Dukes with a threat from behind the arc.

Against the College of William and Mary, he scored 17 points and hit 5-of-6 three pointers in a comeback win. Moore has proven he can score as a redshirt sophomore. The former all-CAA rookie team selection is coming off knee surgery in 2009 and has been a spark for the Dukes. Coming into the year, he was nominated along with 66 other college point guards for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s top point guard. In his first game coming off surgery, he scored 13 points in 33 minutes of action against then-No. 3 Kansas State. The Dukes defense is not nearly as strong as their offense, ranking ninth in the CAA allowing 67.1 points per game. This statistic is evident with a strong performance from senior guard Cam Long as the Dukes guards were unable to contain him, finishing with a career-high 30 points and CAA Player of the Week honors.

JMU has the components to make a strong run at the CAA tournament and a berth in the NCAA tournament. With one of the toughest frontcourts in the CAA, Bowles and the Dukes have plenty of weapons that are sure to drive defenses crazy. Their inside-outside game is tough to guard and their size advantage is a key component into what makes them a team that has the potential to be play in the Big Dance. The next meeting between the two in-state rivals will be at the Patriot Center on Feb. 12.

Next week, we will take an in-depth look into the ODU Monarchs and if they have what it takes to make another NCAA tournament run.