George Mason Patriots Taking CAA by Storm

Mike ArrowsmithCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2009

In the preseason CAA basketball polls, George Mason was picked to finish fourth behind the likes of VCU, Old Dominion, and Northeastern. The general consensus seemed to be that the Patriots were going to be good, but not NCAA tournament bound. I guess George Mason didn’t get the memo.

Gone are the days of 2006 Final Four starters Folarin Campbell, Will Thomas, Jai Lewis, Tony Skin, and Lamar Butler. Now, the Patriots are sporting a 12-3 (5-0 CAA) record behind a new line of stars.

Standing at the top of the CAA with an undefeated conference record, the Patriots have shown how an unselfish offense and power defense win games. While averaging just under 70 points a game, George Mason has received scoring from a variety of sources.

Sophomore Cam Long has embraced his role as a team leader this season. While averaging 11.7 points a game, Long has helped to light up the guard game for the Patriots with help from the senior leadership of John Vaughn (11.1 ppg).

After receiving CAA rookie of the year honors as a freshman, Vaughn suffered an ACL injury that put him out for his entire sophomore season. Three years later, Vaughn is making up for lost time and appears to have his sights set on a CAA title and an NCAA tournament bid.

The Patriots also have been handling their business in the paint this season behind senior center Darryl Monroe. At 6'7" and 250 lbs., Monroe has proved to be one of the most physical and athletic centers in the conference.

In his last three games, Monroe has recorded three straight double-doubles in points and rebounds. Fifteen games into the season, he is averaging 10.6 points per game and 8.9 rebounds a game. Monroe’s inside presence will become more and more vital as the Patriots enter the meat of their CAA schedule.

Mason has also received great inside production from junior forward Louis Birdsong, who is averaging 7.7 points a game.

Finally, George Mason is led by their offensive court general and point guard Dre Smith. Entering his second year as the Patriots starter, experts are expecting Smith to have a breakout senior season. Smith is off to a great start by averaging 8.3 points per game. In eight of the season's first 15 games, Smith has scored in double figures, including a season high 22 points at Dayton.

However, unlike past seasons, the Patriots don’t just go five deep. George Mason has received surprising production from freshman recruits Andre Cornelius, Ryan Pearson, and Michael Morrison. All three of these players have seen significant minutes at a young age, and it has paid dividends on the scoreboard.

Pearson has added something extra to the inside game, averaging 7.1 points per game in 18.1 minutes a game. Michael Morrison seems to be developing into a great rebounder and has been a great compliment at center to Darryl Monroe. Morrison has showed great promise with 15 and 13-point games against Brown and UNC Wilmington.

Cornelius has also been a great contributor as a lightning-quick point guard. Cornelius seems to provide extra energy when on the court and adds a spark to the offense with 6.9 points per game.

These three players seem to be among the best recruits Mason has had in years. The team's Final Four appearance helped to widen recruiting interest across the country. Morrison was picked up in Florida, Cornelius in North Carolina, and Pearson in New York. Mason’s ability to recruit across the country has most likely elevated their incoming talent level for years to come.

As a team, the Patriots are giving up less than 60 points a game and look to have one of the most physical teams in the league. Jim Larranaga looks poised to coach the Patriots to their second consecutive CAA title.

However, there are still plenty of big tests looming down the road for George Mason, with upcoming games against James Madison, Northeastern, VCU, and an ESPN Bracket Buster game not too far off.