George Mason was picked to finish 12th in the Atlantic 10 by the media back in October, fast forward four months and now they are fighting for a top four seed in the conference tournament. Kenpom now predicts Mason finishing the season 20-11 (10-8 in A-10), which is really an incredible turnaround in a such amount of time for Dave Paulsen and company. They came into this season with an undersized, mostly inexperienced roster, that lacked overall depth. None of that seemed to hurt them much during this season as we watch this team consistently out-rebound and beat teams in the paint while also having one of the most efficient offenses within the conference. With five games remaining on the season, a strong finish could go a long way for Mason in positioning themselves for post season action. Yes that’s right, post season play folks!
Winning the Atlantic 10 tournament would be Mason’s only shot at the NCAA tournament but a strong finish in the regular season and in Pittsburgh could also give them a shot at the NIT field. At this point, on a current four-game winning streak, their first since conference play started, they fit the mold of that gritty team no one wants to face in the conference tournament. They are simply going right at teams, driving the lane, attacking the rim and drawing fouls. Seniors Marquise Moore and Jalen Jenkins have been a big part of this season’s unexpected success and will be relied upon heavily during the next couple of weeks. Moore is playing a like a conference Player of the Year and doing historic things for a player his size, while Jenkins has made big improvements to his post game and is playing smart basketball. Meanwhile, Otis Livingston II, Jaire Grayer, Ian Boyd and Karmari Newman continue to be three-point shooting threats, something that wasn’t clicking earlier in the year. The improved shooting has brought more balance to the offense and has made them a lot more difficult to defend against.
But Paulsen’s biggest success story of the year was getting this team to buy into his philosophy and vision. BURN YOUR BOATS! Mason plays extremely hard on both ends and will out-work teams who may seem to have an advantage over them on paper. That mentality and work ethic is why they have a chance to be playing post season basketball this season. Paulsen’s style and culture change are evident all over the place. We see a lot less mistakes on the court, a lower turnover rate, a high free-throw percentage, and low foul rate. These issues plagued the program for years before his arrival and now if seems no matter who they face they will always be prepared and have a shot at winning.
These next couple of games will really show us how far this team has come and it starts Saturday with Rhode Island coming to town. A win over them could propel them into third place in the A-10 standings before making a road trip to Dayton next week. Can Mason secure a double-bye in the A-10 tournament? We’re about to find out.
[Photo by Bill Bride]