James Madison’s Denzel Bowles is a strong candidate for Player of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association this season. He is also a very likely NBA draft pick this coming June.
Two years ago, neither of these things would have had any chance of happening, given the state of his college playing career.
Upon arriving at Texas A&M in 2007, Bowles, at 6’10” and 255 lbs., was merely one of many big men on the Aggies’ roster.
More experienced players like Joseph Jones and Bryan Davis, were receiving the bulk of the minutes inside for Aggies’ new head coach Mark Turgeon. Highly-touted DeAndre Jordan, a fellow freshman, was consuming most of the remaining playing time.
This left Bowles, who came to Texas A&M out of the Virginia Beach area, to an almost exclusive role on the bench his freshman season. Bowles played a total of 24 minutes that season, in eight games.
Entering his sophomore season in the fall of 2008, Bowles figured to get some additional playing time. With the graduation of Jones, and the early departure of Jordan to the NBA, this expectation seemed to be a near certainty.
Things did not play out that way for Bowles. Through his first nine games, he averaged only five minutes and just over two points per game. In December of that season, Bowles played his last game for Texas A&M.
After the fall semester, Bowles decided to return to his home state of Virginia, transferring to James Madison. He was looking for the opportunity to become a starter and prominent figure on a Division I basketball team. For Bowles, the move made sense. He would be playing in a league (the CAA) that was very competitive, but with few quality big men in comparison to major conference teams.
Bowles became eligible to play for James Madison in December 2009, after the fall semester. Almost immediately, Bowles became a standout, both in physical presence and in level of play.
In just his second game with the Dukes, Bowles scored 37 points and pulled down 15 rebounds against Gardner Webb. In that one game, he had scored more points than he did in a year and a half at Texas A&M.
Bowles did not let up from there. He went on to average nearly 21 points and over nine boards a game for the season. He posted 12 double-doubles, including both games the Dukes played in last year’s CAA Tournament.
It was a great season individually for Bowles. However, JMU struggled, even with the emergence of the second-team All-CAA power forward. The team finished just 4-14 in the league, and was knocked out in the CAA quarterfinals.
A significant improvement this season seemed likely for JMU, who would now have Bowles, an easy preseason first-team All-CAA pick, for a full season. The Dukes got off to a solid start. Despite a season-opening loss to Kansas State, the Dukes went 10-2 in non-conference play, including wins over South Florida, Marshall and Kent State.
Bowles and JMU continued their quality play into the conference schedule, winning five straight against CAA foes before losing at Old Dominion, the defending league champion, by only six points.
Bowles certainly did his part, with 20 points and nine rebounds against a very physical ODU team, led upfront by Frank Hassell.
While Bowles would have loved to win a game in his home Tidewater area, the loss left him and the Dukes with nothing to be ashamed of. They proved they could compete with a league power on their home court, something they will need to do more of in order to stay in competition for the CAA regular season title.
JMU will return home to play another key league game, against George Mason, on Saturday. It will be another chance for Bowles to showcase his frontcourt game against one of the perennial powers of the CAA.
It will not get any easier after that, as the Dukes will go to Hofstra then play Drexel back home.
At 5-2 in the league, JMU has already topped their CAA win total from last season. The team has commanded the respect of the league, and is now mentioned in the same breath as the league’s Virginia powers: George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU.
With his outstanding play over the past year, Bowles now has legitimate NBA aspirations. In addition, he has helped revitalize a program in his home state. Neither of these would have had any chance to happen if he stayed in Texas.
It seems like he made the right decision.