We will certainly learn a lot about this year's George Mason Patriots after these next 10 days.
Fresh off of another great second-half performance Monday afternoon against William and Mary, the Patriots will now take on four games in 10 days—all against tough opponents.
Taking on the defending champs Old Dominion, the resurgent Georgia State, the preseason favorites Drexel and the perennial pain James Madison over 10 days is bad enough. Add in that the Patriots will be on the road against ODU, Drexel and JMU—all places that are historically tough on Mason—and you have a simply murderous schedule.
This is why this stretch will be so pivotal for Mason. Lately, the Patriots have been playing some of their best basketball all season, and if they play the way that they have since the second half of the Manhattan game on December 23rd, I see no reason why Mason can't win at least three of these games, if not all four.
Here are a few keys to how George Mason can survive this key four-game stretch, and how they can come out of it with control of the CAA.
I feel like I say this every game, so I figure, why drag it out when I can just talk about it all in one slide?
Mason has continually proven to struggle against the three-point shot. Once again on Monday, William and Mary picked apart Mason's perimeter defense, allowing Marcus Thornton to have a career day against Mason.
Three of Mason's next four opponents shoot over 32 percent from beyond the arc, and you can bet that they will try to establish the three-point shot against the Patriots early and often. If Mason expects to win these games, they cannot allow jump shooters like Frantz Massenat or Humpty Hitchens to get hot on them from deep.
Mason also needs to take out the star player—or in this case—players. ODU features CAA Preseason Player of the Year Kent Bazemore, though it is Chris Cooper who concerns me more. As Cooper goes, so does ODU.
Georgia State has featured a three-headed monster in Devonta White, Jihad Ali and Eric Buckner to stifle opponents.
Drexel shows the only player to average a double double in the CAA last season, Samme Givens, and Chris Fouch as their go-to men.
JMU has seen Humpty Hitchens and AJ Davis absolutely light up the scoreboard this season—both averaging over 15 points per game, according to ESPN.
Obviously, Mason won't be able to completely stop each of these superstars, but they will need to limit them, especially on the road, in order to give themselves a chance to win each game.
The other constant factor in determining Mason's wins and losses will be turnovers. Not only must Mason find ways to limit their turnovers, but they have to find a way to continue to force them.
Five times this season, Mason has committed over 15 turnovers—they are 1-4 in those games. Eight times, the Patriots have won the turnover battle. They are undefeated when that happens.
Those statistics make it very simple: Win the turnover battle and you win the game. Mason has done a great job the past few games, allowing their defense to set up their offense, and that can't change going into this stretch of tough CAA games.
Lately, Mason has gone one of two ways to start their halves: They are either ice cold and allow their opponents to stage a huge early run, or they are white hot and bury their opponents from the jump.
Particularly with this stretch of games—seeing as three of the four of them are on the road—Mason needs to get out to quick starts each and every half. A fast start sets the tempo of the half, immediately gets momentum in your favor and can take a rowdy crowd out of the game real fast.
The way to do this is to take good, patient shots in the early going and to play strong defense.
Against Charleston, Mason shooters were moving way too fast and forcing up too many shots. In the first half against William and Mary, Mason continued to settle for tough jump shots. Both strategies led to nice runs for their opponents.
On the flip side, there was Mason's start to the second half against William and Mary. The Patriots scored the first 16 points of the half, and they did it by taking high percentage shots and using steals and rebounds on the defensive end to set up easy scores for the offense.
At ODU in particular, we have seen Mason get themselves into deep holes in the early going, and then spend the rest of the game fighting out of them. With how poor Old Dominion's shooting has been this season, I'm not sure if they will be able to withstand big Patriots runs to start both halves.
If Mason can start each half with even a mini run, it will go a long way to their success over the next week and a half.
With the quality of opponents coming up for the Patriots, they will need all hands on deck, and cannot afford to have too many players—especially too many key players—in foul trouble.
Just look at Ryan Pearson's performances with and without being in foul trouble. Against Charleston, Pearson managed to stay out on the floor for 39 minutes with only two fouls, and went for an absurd 35 points and 14 rebounds.
Against William and Mary, however, Pearson only played eight first-half minutes thanks to early foul trouble, and finished with 11 points and four boards. This was not the first time Ryan has been saddled with early fouls.
Every time it happens, not only do Pearson's numbers fall, but the entire offense struggles.
This goes for just about everyone else on Mason's roster—from Vertrail Vaughns to Mike Morrison. Mason needs everyone to cut down on their fouls and stay on the court longer.
On the flip side, the Patriots would benefit by putting their opponents into some foul troubles. George State, for example, has a very short bench, and if a couple of their men have to take a seat in the early going, it can be a huge advantage for Mason.
Going after the stars of other teams—such as Kent Bazemore or Samme Givens—never hurt either.
George Mason prides themselves on their depth. Every single player, walk-ons and all, has played at some point this season for the Patriots, and 10 different players average over 11 minutes a game.
This gives Mason an advantage over just about every other team out there—just in the sheer number of players that they can use in any given game.
That being said, Mason needs to receive offensive production from their bench players for their depth to actually mean something.
Andre Cornelius has been a true force off the bench since his return from suspension. He has made Mason a legitimate threat from beyond the arc again, and his 20-point performance on Monday single-handily kept the Patriots afloat while the rest of the team struggled to score points.
However, if you take away Andre's contributions, the bench has averaged eight points per game over the three-game winning streak. Even Paul Hewitt has expressed his frustration with the lack of bench scoring from the Patriots.
Now, that being said, the men off the bench have contributed in their own ways to Mason's success. Vaughn Gray has turned in two strong performances in a row, giving Mason a ton of extra energy when he's in the game, and Erik Copes is a block machine, who looks to be on pace to shatter Mason's single season record for blocks.
If the bench players can add just a touch of scoring to their games, Mason will truly be the deepest team in the CAA by far. Not only will it lead to success over the next 10 days, but it will propel Mason for the rest of the season.
This may be the most important aspect of the game for Mason over the next few weeks, and will determine how successful the Patriots will be over this pivotal stretch.
Though the Patriots have put together three nice wins in a row, they have started the disturbing trend of allowing smaller teams to control the boards for large stretches of the game. William and Mary, a team who has struggled rebounding all season, actually out-rebounded the Patriots last game, allowing for a ton of second chance points that led to their early advantage.
The biggest problem for Mason has been grabbing rebounds on defense—allowing eight offensive boards to both William and Mary and Charleston. Particularly when Ryan Pearson isn't on the floor, Mason has allowed teams to rebound almost at will, and it is starting to become a problem.
This is particularly important with the stretch of teams coming up.
Old Dominion relies on guys like Chris Cooper to grab offensive boards—thanks to their shooting deficiencies—and actually used their rebounding prowess to steal a victory from JMU on Monday. Eric Buckner and Josh Micheaux of Georgia State have propelled Georgia State to 10 straight victories, thanks to their abilities on the glass.
Drexel features Sammie Givens and Daryl McCoy, who average 7.1 and 6.4 rebounds per game, respectively.
Neither of these three teams is spectacular off the first shot. They beat you with second-chance points, and by dominating the glass.
For Mason to be successful, they will need a strong, concentrated effort from the entire team to control the glass. Yes, guys like Mike Morrison and Erik Copes will obviously be at the forefront of this effort, but for Mason to win, everyone needs to do their part.
If Mason can find a way to win the rebound battle over the next week and a half, I think that they will truly be hard to stop for the next four games.