A disastrous but fitting end to George Mason’s season

At one point in the first half yesterday George Mason had a built a 31-7 lead over #1 seed Northeastern. Impressive considering how well the Huskies took care of the Patriots during the regular season. Mason came out strong and played solid defense in the beginning, making most say ‘where has this been all year?’. But I guess we should have known it was too good to be true. Anyone who has seen this team play this year cannot be surprised by what happened in Richmond yesterday. A team that has for most of the year would have moments where they looked like there in control one moment and than quickly switch to immediate disarray in a blink of an eye. The meltdown was very similar to their 20-point blown lead against Drexel in late January. Despite shooting 64% from the field Mason still managed the epic collapse. How bad was Mason’s defense, well Northeastern went on a 26-2 run in less than seven minutes to quickly erase the deficit early in the second half. Later, Mason was up 67-61 and ended up being down 69-67 without taking a shot during that stretch. How does that even happen?

Mason had the ball with 33 seconds left and chance go ahead out of a timeout. Bryon Allen turned over the ball on a pass to Sherrod Wright under the basket. Jonathan Lee made the winning layup with three seconds left on the next possession. Keep in mind Patrick Holloway, who hadn’t entered the game to this point, was in for those final seconds on defense.

After watching this team play a solid game on both ends against Drexel the day before, it was difficult to watch the collapse unfold. Teams go on runs and comeback all the time in college basketball but it was how quickly Northeastern accomplished it on Sunday that was so unnerving. The constant fouling, a recurring theme of the season, halted any momentum the Patriots tried to build after blowing the big lead. They fought back several times but only to be undone by ticky-tack fouls.

Bryon Allen and Marko Gujanicic came up big but it just wasn’t enough. They needed more from their star Sherrod Wright in the end. Also Erik Copes, who had been coming up big lately, was a total non-factor in the game. He wasn’t in foul trouble and was nearly invisible in the post on defense. Offensively, the Patriots played a good game but they lost the battle of at the free-throw which turned out to be difference. Hard to imagine a team losing after shooting 64% from the field, especially in a conference tournament game.

Video highlights

And apparently this season might not be over just yet….

Hewitt says he would consider playing in one of the third-tier tournaments to gain experience for senior-free rotation #masonmbb
— Steven Goff (@GMUWashPost) March 10, 2013

[Photo by Craig Bisacre]

George Mason survives against Drexel, moves on to face Northeastern in CAA semifinals

It was a physical game and George Mason survived for the win late with Drexel making a run. Bryon Allen was easily Mason’s MVP today and had 16 points but more importantly 6 steals. They were momentum changing steals and we collectively saw Mason play one of their best defensive games of the season. Sherrod Wright came up big and take over early in the second half. He was attacking the rim and getting to the line often. He and Allen were too much to handle for Drexel’s back court in the end. The Patriots did a good job on Drexel’s leading scorer Damion Lee and didn’t let him get going at any point. 

Credit is due to Paul Hewitt and the staff, Mason was ready for this one and executed their game plan well. The Dragons fought back late but Mason’s key players led the team to the victory. They played with an aggressiveness on offense we haven’t seen much of this season and they were more disciplined on defense for a change. I said earlier this week it was essential for Mason to attack the rim and get to the line, and they did.

Allen complemented Wright all day long with his breakaway drives and steals. You have to wonder what the season would have been if he played like that more often. As a team, Mason just seemed like they wanted it more and their star players led by example. They smelled blood in the second half and took over for a long stretch. After building a big lead they kind of coasted on defense and Hewitt even switched to a zone for a short period. Basketball is a game of runs and Mason just had their best ones a bit too early.

The most impressive thing about Mason today was their intensity on both ends. Shots weren’t falling early but they didn’t stop working. Marko Gujanicic was all over the place and hit the floor many times for loose balls. They out-worked the Dragons and wouldn’t be denied. They will need to continue that type of mind set in order to win further in this tournament.

A few highlights:

Bryon Allen, steal and the basket vine.co/v/bwJmIHWqKLJ
— gmuhoops (@gmuhoops) March 9, 2013

Sherrod Wright follows his shot vine.co/v/bwJqAVFTwtK
— gmuhoops (@gmuhoops) March 9, 2013

Bryon Allen, another steal and basket vine.co/v/bwJn0xQzdUV
— gmuhoops (@gmuhoops) March 9, 2013

CAA Quarterfinals Preview: #4 George Mason vs #5 Drexel

So here we are, George Mason’s last hope of dancing in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The odds are not in their favor to take home the CAA’s automatic bid but the tournament is still pretty wide open. First up for Mason is a quarterfinals match-up with Drexel, whom they split the season series with. Both teams won on the road with Mason getting the most recent victory in Philadelphia. That was actually one of the Patriots better games on defense. They limited the Dragons to under 38% shooting from the field and held Damion Lee to 1-for-5 from behind the arch. They also out-rebounded them and got to the line more; something they will need to repeat again in Richmond.

The first meeting between the two teams didn’t go as well for Mason, and Damion Lee had a field day with the Patriots poor perimeter defense. Aside from a scoring burst against ODU, which everyone did this season, Lee hasn’t been on fire from behind the three-point line. However, he’s capable of going off on any night and they will need to limit his open looks. In that loss at the Patriot Center they were shuffling nearly everyone on Lee in a effort to thwart this shooting. It didn’t work and their game plan should include staying out of that situation again. It all starts with defense for Mason and they need to start out strong and not dig themselves into a hole early.

Rebounding is another obvious key in this game and the tournament for Mason. Paul Hewitt has been harping on it lately so it looks like we should see a good effort on the glass in Richmond. Erik Copes has been a force and they will need him to stay out of foul trouble, with or without Johnny Williams in the lineup. In their last two games rebounding wasn’t the problem and this is an area they have improved on.

Drexel has sent more guys to the foul line than any other CAA team in conference play this season. Sherrod Wright and Bryon Allen need to take advantage here. Speaking of Wright, we found out yesterday that he’s been battling a foot injury for much of the season. That might explain why he’s looked a bit worn out lately. Nevertheless they need him to be a threat from all angles in this tournament.

Drexel plays a physical game and both Erik Copes and Jonathan Arledge will need to be aggressive in the front court. Lately they have been solid scoring options for Mason and I think this could carry over nicely into the tournament. Teams can’t key in as much on Wright when either of these two are hitting shots. Arledge has emerged as a more regular second scorer and he will have an opportunity this weekend to really prove his worth.

Kenpom’s computers predict this year’s CAA tournament winner

Kenpom is a site dedicated to advanced analysis of college basketball and I reference a lot of the numbers and rankings here. They are now doing their computer projections for each conference tournament and here at the results for the CAA:

All-kenpom: Jerrelle Benimon, Towson (kPOY); Devon Saddler, Delaware; Sherrod Wright, George Mason; R.J. Hunter, Georgia State; Damion Lee, Drexel.

 The number above are the probabilities of a team advancing to each round. Looks like George Mason has a less than 20% chance of taking the CAA autobid to the NCAA tournament this year.

[via Kenpom]

Can George Mason win the CAA tournament?

Expectations are not exactly riding high right now for George Mason fans entering this weekend’s 2013 CAA tournament. I’m sure a lot of fans are finding comfort in the fact that at least Mason won’t be eliminated by VCU this year. The question still remains whether or not George Mason can start off fresh in Richmond and take the CAA’s autobid for a berth to the NCAA tournament. Their resume is not impressive and their body of work in the CAA is sketchy and inconsistent to say the least. They had real trouble beating the top half of the CAA this season and would most likely have to go through Drexel, Northeastern, and Delaware to win it all. A tough task considering they went 1-5 collectively against those teams.

Here is what they will have to do to win this weekend in Richmond:

Tighten up on defense, everywhere. It’s no secret defense wasn’t this team’s strength this season and it really destroyed a lot of good things they did on offense. It’s almost shocking how this aspect of their game never improved over the course of the year. Paul Hewitt wanted to a run a more up-tempo offense (remember how many times I used that phrase in the off-season?) and that starts with making stops and forcing turnovers. It never materialized and often Mason fans watched open shot after open shot. They have had real trouble closing out on the perimeter but the trouble wasn’t just there. Mason players were so out of position in a lot of games that fouling was literally their only means of stopping the opposing team’s players. That’s just bad and we saw it happen way too many times this year. This weekend a big key will be limiting the amount of three-point looks they yield to their opponents and forcing more perimeter players to put the ball on the floor.

Stop sending teams to the free-throw line so often. This is a big killer as well and it kind of goes off what I said above about their sloppiness on defense. But it deserves it’s own point because tournament games are usually close and can come down to free-throws. There are only 16 teams (out of 347) that send their opponents to the free-throw line at a more frequent rate than George Mason. It’s so bad that the Patriots last loss was in a game where Delaware had more made free-throws (26) than they had field goals (25). That’s an interesting and frustrating way to lose. They have to reduce this rate in Richmond and stop giving away points at the line. It ruins their tempo and stalls any momentum they may have built.

Get Sherrod Wright going early. George Mason’ success on offense is usually tied to how well Sherrod Wright is doing in that particular game. Lately he hasn’t been putting up the kind of numbers that earlier in the season had him in the running for CAA player of the year. Perhaps he is a bit worn out but he’s had a week to rest and focus. As a team they are at their best when Wright is drawing a lot of attention, hitting outside shots, driving to the lane, and getting to the foul line. They have to run plays for him and early and ride him because they don’t have better options that score consistently. It’s great that they try to get Erik Copes going in the beginning of most games but the focus has to be on their best player this weekend.

Keep a short rotation. This ones for Paul Hewitt. I’m not sure what the status of Johnny Williams is but either way they need to keep a short rotation. Off the bench I think we should really only be seeing Vertrail Vaughns, Marko Gujanicic and Patrick Holloway. Fouls can muck this up and that’s why they need to stay more disciplined. I think keeping Wright, Allen, and Edwards on the floor for more minutes is the best recipe for success in this tournament. Hewitt loves to throw Anali Okoloji in the mix for his energy on defense but a lot of times he hurts more than he helps. Paris Bennett should only be brought in if foul trouble is an issue with the forwards and if Johnny Williams isn’t playing. I think the big reason why we never saw a shorter rotation as the season went on was because Hewitt couldn’t find a group that consistently played good defense together. It all starts with defense.

[Photo by John Powell]

Pairings set for CAA championship bracket: #4 George Mason vs #5 Drexel

George Mason didn’t finish the year strong and their loss at Delaware on Saturday dropped them into the 4 vs 5 game of the bracket. Not a favorable match-up as the winner will have to face Northeastern in the semifinals. The game against Delaware was a back and forth affair and Sherrod Wright helped get Mason going early. Mason just couldn’t pull it out at the end and lost a hard fought battle. The Blue Hens ended up getting to the line a ton down the stretch and it’s the reason why they have won so many close games this year. Devon Saddler and Jarvis Threatt went a combined 18-for-20 from the free-throw line for the Blue Hens. We saw freshman Marko Gujanicic post a career-high 21 points but the Patriots went back to their fouling ways on defense and it killed their comeback efforts.

We saw the Patriots fight in this one, even late, but it just wasn’t enough. They have an uphill climb if they want to grab that CAA autobid next weekend but that has been no secret for awhile now. The fundamentals are still killing this team, especially on defense. They struggle to make stops at key moments in the game and it’s been holding back their offense all season. Different scorers seems to step up every night but the same doesn’t happen on defense.

Vertail Vaughns had a season-high 16 points but Patrick Holloway, who had been hot recently played only four minutes. A perfect end to a season of weird rotations. It begs the question of why this was never stabilized at any point this year. A shorter rotation may have also helped on defense because it certainly seemed like nothing else was working.

The sad part in all this is that George Mason doesn’t seem to be any better at this point in the season. The moments where the team looks in disarray are still there but we also see bursts of talent. I don’t think this team has a talent shortage but I do think they just don’t play well together. That may not all be Paul Hewitt’s fault but finding a system that works for this group of players is his responsibility.

If the CAA tournament started today…

A lot of CAA basketball still left to play,  but if the conference tournament were to start today this is roughly what the bracket would look like. Some teams have played more games than others and there are various tiebreakers I’m not factoring in yet but you get the picture. As you can see with only seven eligible teams and Northeastern looking pretty locked in that #1 spot, it would be in George Mason’s best interest to at least earn the #2 or #3 seed. Doing so would allow them to avoid Northeastern, whom they have lost twice to, until the championship game. Try to hold back your excitement as this year’s winner will be awarded with that coveted #16 seed in the NCAA tournament!

2013 CAA men’s basketball tournament will field 7 eligible teams

So it is official now, the 2013 CAA tournament next March will field only seven teams. The conference presidents unanimously voted that both ODU and Georgia State will not be eligible for the post season tournament that determines the conference’s champion. Both ODU and Georgia State had asked the other member schools to reconsider the conference bylaws that banned schools from the conference tournaments after announcing a conference change but were shot down. With VCU already in the Atlantic 10 and both UNCW and Towson penalized for low APR scores, that leaves the tournament with only seven eligible schools. 
Michael Litos of caahoops.com also mentions that league commissioner Tom Yeager also stated today that the #1 seed in the conference tournament gets the NIT bid, should they not win the NCAA autobid. Thus meaning that neither ODU nor Georgia State can earn an autobid to the NIT by finishing in first place during the regular season. So in the end, the conference stuck to their guns, and then some.
No official word yet from the CAA on the addition of new members but Yeager was quoted today saying they are “active in the conference membership business.” Also the conference is looking into whether or not to change the location of the tournament.

VCU eliminates George Mason from the CAA tournament once again

Don’t try to blame this embarrassing loss on the fact that the tournament is annually held in Richmond. Mason didn’t come out ready to play this game, something we have seen at many other times this season and VCU take advantage. This marks the sixth time since 2004 that VCU has eliminated George Mason from the CAA tournament. The game started off with a 22-0 run by VCU with Bradford Burgess dropping three-pointer bombs left and right. It got as bad as 32-4 and body language for the Patriots didn’t look good. Mike Morrison helped rally the team and cut the lead down to 16 at the half, a minor miracle. His energy must have been infectious in the locker room because the Patriots did mount somewhat of a comeback in the second half. And they did have their chances to bring it to a one possession game but Vertrail Vaughns and Jonathan Arledge both missed key three-pointers down the stretch. I had in my tournament previews that this team would need to lean on their veterans players and Mike Morrison and Andre Cornelius helped make this game more respectable for Mason but Ryan Pearson was a total disappointment this weekend.
It was just amazing to watch how poorly Mason executed to start the game, turnover after and turnover, all of which VCU turned into points. Then they started hoisting up three-pointers, an area of the game they have been atrocious from all season. They really needed something more from Ryan Pearson as it was a sad way for the CAA player of the year to go out. I do applaud the team for not giving up and fighting until the end but it should never have come to this, especially in the conference tournament with the chance for an NCAA bid on the line.
The Patriots most glaring weakness this season was the struggles at the point guard position. Towards the end of this game Paul Hewitt had Cornelius bringing the ball up instead of Bryon Allen, something he hadn’t done much at all this season. That doesn’t bode well for the future at this position for George Mason. Corey Edwards played one minute last night, which was not encouraging. Bryon Allen is great scorer but I don’t know if he is the answer at the point. Hewitt still has a scholarship available, might he bring in someone else?
Something positive to take from this weekend is what we saw out of sophomore Jonathan Arledge. He got a lot of minutes in this one with Erik Copes out due to a hip injury. We already know he has a decent outside shot but he showed some toughness inside against the Rams that I hope to see more of next season. 
Now Mason waits to see if they can earn a low seed in the NIT or entry into a third-tier post season tournament. To help cheer us all up let’s watch the Green Machine play “Moves like Jagger” from this weekend: