Year two for Dave Paulsen and George Mason begins with higher hopes than the last couple of seasons. Wins over Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Davidson, and VCU showed to the fan base that this program was moving in the right direction. Paulsen had the daunting task of installing his new culture into the program and cleaning up all the unforced errors we grew accustomed to seeing. We saw a team last year that fouled less and rebounded the ball well. It was clear at the end of the season that the team was practicing and playing hard but just kept falling short. Inexperience was a big issue last season, some freshmen were playing who probably weren’t ready but with the teams lack of depth there was no choice.
Now they enter 2016-17 with a more seasoned group and a proven new leader in Otis Livingston II. There are some new faces, some of whom will have an immediate impact, and definitely make this team tougher on the wings. And don’t be surprised to see an offense that runs a heck of a lot smoother. Yes, it is the ‘The Year of Small Ball’ but that’s not a bad thing. Let’s take a look at some of the key issues heading into this season for Mason using some quotes from Paulsen from this year’s Blue Ribbon Yearbook.
Is this team better without Shevon Thompson?
Dare we ask this question? Yes and yes they are better without him. Thompson was a terrific center and one of the most efficient rebounders in college basketball last season but his raw play and inexperience often hurt the team. On offense, they were often playing four against five because of how limited he was and how slippery he could be with the basketball. He wasn’t a great passer and didn’t have a lot of post moves. As the season went on teams quickly saw how to get him to cough up the ball or force him into a bad shot. It severely limited an offense that was already having a tough time just shooting the ball. Look for the offense to run better this season, look less broken, and create more opportunities for these up and coming guards. A smaller, more versatile lineup won’t be a bad thing. Embrace the ‘Year of Small Ball’!
How important are Livingston and Grayer’s progression as sophomores?
If this team is going to get out of the Atlantic 10 basement it will be because Otis Livingston II and Jaire Grayer are playing at a higher level. Both were thrown into the fire last season and I think we are all excited to see them as sophomores. Livingston played more minutes than anyone else on the team last year and rarely had a poor outing. “He’s maturing as a point guard, finding the blend between being really aggressive offensively and getting everyone involved,” Paulsen said. “If you flow too far off the end of the spectrum, you’re a role player or volume shooter. It’s more art than science, and he’s really improving in that area.”
Meanwhile Grayer looks like he’s put on some muscle and will play a critical role in this team shooting the ball better. But they will need more than just his shooting this season: “We want him to make use of his versatility,” Paulsen said. “He’s become much stronger where we think he can drive, absorb contact and hopefully finish. We want him to go offensive rebound, maybe post a kid up, do some things besides just living and dying with 3s.”
The big three of Livingston, Grayer and senior Marquise Moore will be the focal point of the offense. Moore needs to stay healthy and continue to keep attacking the rim and creating for his teammates. Livingston and Grayer need to learn to defend better as the A-10 has no shortage of quality back court players.
Which freshmen will have the biggest impact this season?
The five person recruiting class includes three guards and two forwards. The latest edition and local product AJ Wilson has been rumored to be redshirting this season, so I’ll leave him out of this discussion for the time being. Ian Boyd looks the part to get some early minutes this season. He has a Division I ready body and has big time scoring ability. “Physically, he’s a grown man,” Paulsen said. “He’s competitive, has a nose for scoring and rebounding the ball. He needs to be a little more consistent shooting the ball, but if he gets a head of stem going to the rim, he’s going to get to the rim. He can be an impact players from day one.” Boy that quote gets me excited.
The other freshman who most fans will talking about this season is forward Troy Temara. He enters this season as the most athletic forward on the team and Blue Ribbon says he’s already ahead of Dixon and Relvao on the depth chart. He’s an elite rebounder and has the ability to drive the lane and create. It will be interesting to see how Paulsen uses him given his versatility, big question being can he defend in the post? With the limited depth in the front court this season he will definitely be getting plenty of minutes. If he can develop a mid-range jumper, Paulsen can maybe finally run that pick-and-pop play that was a staple for his teams at Bucknell.
Freshmen guards Justin Kier and Karmari Newman bring some shooting depth to the backcourt but both need to put weight and get stronger. They will battle with Kameron Murrell for minutes, who struggled a bit last season but I think will make some strides this year as a solid role player. A big difference this year is that the team has guys coming off the bench that they can trust.
Will depth be an issue in the front court this season?
One of my biggest fears heading into this season is that this squad lacks size and depth in the front court. Make no mistake, this is the ‘Year of Small Ball’ for Dave Paulsen and company but how much could that hurt them? I said earlier how they will be better with Shevon Thompson but there could be times when the depth could be an issue, especially when senior Jalen Jenkins gets into foul trouble. This team will already be relying on guards to rebound and asking guys like DeAndre Abram to guard much bigger bodies. On offense, I think the four-guard lineups could thrive but on defense it could come back to bite them. Paulsen’s defense, which last season produced the lowest number of forced turnovers in all of college basketball (yes out of all 351 teams), will have to play tougher no matter what lineup is on the floor.
Paulsen has stated that the starting lineup at the moment is Otis, Grayer, Moore, Abram, and Jenkins but don’t be surprised to see that change often during the season. Temara definitely helps this unit but he’s a freshmen and doesn’t come in with a solid post game or anything. We didn’t much from Danny Dixon last year and Daniel Relvao is making his college debut this year after redshirting with an injury. Relvao is the biggest body they have but can he rebound and defend in the post? It will be interesting to see how Paulsen handles this throughout the season but I would guess it will be a lot of guard-heavy lineups on the floor.
Will they be more competitive in the Atlantic 10 this year?
The Atlantic 10 isn’t exactly facing a down year in 2016-17 but it certainly won’t be as strong as it’s been in past years. Many teams, like VCU, are reloading and lost a lot of upperclassmen assets. The door is wide open outside of the projected top three of Rhode Island, VCU, and Dayton and if Mason can find a way to get some more points on the board this season they certainly won’t finish 13th or 14th. There is less of a talent and experience gap for Mason in this conference but they will still be cleaning up the little mistakes that plagued them last year. Paulsen’s culture will fix the small issues but in the end he’s still running a freshmen and sophomore laden team out there each night. Will the new guys step up as well as Otis and Grayer did as freshmen last season? That could be a big question that means the difference between an 8th place team and 13th place team at the end of the season. Personally I think they can make enough strides to crack the top 10 of this conference but they will have to shoot the ball much better and defend the wings A LOT better.
“We’re going to have quality depth at every position,” Paulsen said. “Unlike last season, anytime we put a guy in the game, we’re going to feel like this guy is ready to play.