George Mason returns from their week off for the holidays with a tough road test at the 10-2 Charleston Cougars. The last time we saw the Patriots play, it was in what was perhaps their best effort of the year, using a blistering second half performance to power past the hot Manhattan Jaspers.
This game will be much tougher for Mason, however. The road has not been kind to the Patriots so far this season, who are 3-3 in games away from the Patriot Center this season, but even their wins have been lackluster at best, including hard-fought victories against meager opponents, such as Towson and Radford.
Mason's biggest problem on the road this season has been their inability to control how the game is being played. Almost every time Mason goes on the road, they buy into their opponent's game plan and end up playing an uncomfortable style of basketball.
For example, Towson likes to shoot a lot of threes, as they lack the size to compete down low. Instead of coming in and dominating the paint, Mason was content to get into a three-point shooting contest with Towson, taking an uncharacteristic 17 three-pointers, which allowed Towson to stay in the game until the very end.
Virginia plays a half-court, slowdown game. Mason plays a very uptempo, fast game. So naturally, when Mason visited Virginia, they allowed the Cavaliers to control the tempo and were not able to speed up the pace on offense at all, which would lead to their inability to get back in the game once they got behind.
Charleston is another team who likes to shoot the three ball, but unlike Towson, the Cougars boast a ton of size, using primarily three forwards in their starting rotation. This poses a lot of matchup problems, as it gives Charleston the ability to play in the paint or beyond the arc.
If Mason has any shot of winning this game, first and foremost, they need to sure up their perimeter defense. The Patriots have allowed far too many open three-pointers this season, including allowing 28 threes to fall in their past four road games. It just feels like sharp shooting guards and forwards have routinely had a field day against Mason's lackadaisical perimeter defense.
Charleston is a team that jacks up an insane amount of three-pointers, including attempting 24 long-range shots in a game against Morehead State earlier this season, but hits a lot of their attempts, shooting a staggering .381 from beyond the arc.
The biggest troublemaker from deep is junior Andrew Lawrence, who has hit 28 threes so far this season. Personally, I would like to see Andre Cornelius, who is one of Mason's better defensive players, take the assignment on Lawrence and try to limit his open looks.
As good as Lawrence is, though, Charleston's go-to player will be senior forward Antwaine Wiggins, who is averaging 18.6 points per game. Since the graduation of superstar Andrew Goudelock, Wiggins has proven to be the man in Charleston, and will likely be matched up with Mason's Ryan Pearson. As I said leading up to the game with Virginia, the team that gets the better of this matchup between star players will likely gain control of the outcome of the game.
Charleston's biggest weakness is their lack of depth. The Cougars tend to play an eight man rotation, but even of those eight, only five average 20 or more minutes. Much of this lack of depth comes from inexperience, as the Cougars only boast three juniors and a senior for upperclassmen.
The way Mason can take advantage of this is very simple: drive the lane. Mason has a number of guys, Ryan Pearson, Sherrod Wright and Bryon Allen just to name a few, who have great success when they drive into the paint and look to draw fouls. If the Patriots manage to get Charleston's starters into foul trouble, particularly guys like Wiggins and Trent Wiedeman, they can take advantage of Charleston's short bench.
The keys to this game for Mason will be what they always are: control the tempo, make your shots, play hard defense and don't turn the ball over. If Mason allows Charleston to start making easy baskets and then panics trying to get back into the game, it may be a long day for the Patriots.
However, if Mason can avoid falling into the trap of a three-point shooting contest and have consistent, smart offensive possessions like they had against Manhattan, I truly think they can come away from this game with a hard-fought victory.