After seven long months, it's finally here: the start of the college basketball season.
On Friday night George Mason will tip off their season against the University of Virginia, which will be the first of many tests for the Patriots throughout the season.
Despite the close historical ties between the schools, this will be only the seventh matchup in their histories, and the second one to take place in Mason's home of Fairfax. Va. So far, Virginia has won all seven games between the two schools.
Last season, Mason and UVA met in Charlottesville, where the Cavaliers put a hurting on the Patriots 68-48. Although the game may have been partially affected by cursed jerseys, it still was a painful and mildly embarrassing loss for the Patriots.
Many things have changed since December 6, 2011, however. Both teams are sporting new faces, and as is the case at the start of every new season, hope springs eternal.
Let's take a look at five keys to Friday's game that will help Mason start their season off on the right foot against Virginia.
One of the biggest stories of the offseason for George Mason this year was their transition to a new, high-octane, high-energy offense.
The high-speed offense is more of the style that head coach Paul Hewitt likes to run, and all summer, Mason fans heard how player's bodies were changing, how players were able to play multiple positions on the court and how we would see an offense that was vastly different than last year's low post based attack.
This fast paced style is a complete contrast to Virginia's more slow-paced, half court offensive style. UVA likes to grind the game down to an almost plodding pace, limiting the amount of possessions, playing stout defense and making high-percentage shots.
For Mason to get an advantage on Friday night, they need to impose their pace on the game. For the new offense to work, the Patriots need a lot of possessions, and if they allow Virginia to run their style of offense, it could completely cripple Mason.
The Patriots need to make it a high possession game, run up and down the floor, and make Virginia uncomfortable.
The easiest way for Mason to ramp up the speed is by running presses on defense and grabbing an early lead.
Due to injuries and suspensions, Virginia's backcourt is very inexperienced right now, and playing high-pressure defense may force them into turnovers that can lead to quick, easy points.
As for getting a lead, Virginia will not be able to run a slow-paced offense if they are playing catch up. If Mason can go on an early run and keep the pace where they want it, they may, quite literally, be able to run away with this one.
Mason's biggest Achilles heel last season was their insane turnover rate.
Now, part of the issue last season may have been the overall inexperience of Mason's backcourt. Edwards was a freshmen and Allen was a sophomore who had only averaged 5.8 minutes his freshman year.
But after a full season running the point and a full offseason to prepare and fix their mistakes, the inexperience argument can't be used anymore. Paul Hewitt has also stressed all offseason that the Patriots need to cut down on their turnovers.
Despite this emphasis on limiting turnovers, Mason still gave the ball up 19 times in their exhibition, granted Bryon Allen did not play in the game and it was just an exhibition. A positive that came out of the game, however, was that Corey Edwards showed his growth from last season with eight assists and only two turnovers.
Mason may need to lean on Edwards even more than usual against UVA due to the uncertainty surrounding Allen's availability. Allen missed both Mason's exhibition against Bowie State and their scrimmage against Marquette due to a back injury, and even received an MRI earlier in the week.
Hopefully Allen will be able to suit up against the Cavaliers, as he seems to have the leadership and scoring ability that Edwards lacks, but if he can't, then it will be Corey's offense to run, possibly with help from Vertrail Vaughns.
Mason showed last year how turnovers can lose games, and for them to be successful against Virginia, they are going to need to keep the ball from Cavalier defenders.
Remember this guy?
It's been a while since Mason fans have seen Sherrod Wright.
Due to an undisclosed offseason incident, Wright was prohibited from participating in Mason Madness, nor could he play in Mason's exhibition against Bowie State.
Sherrod Wright is back though, and with the departure of Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison, Wright is Mason's leading returning scorer. Due to his immense talent, he is the guy many fans are looking towards to lead the team offensively.
Wright showed last year that he has potential to be the man if given the opportunity. He quickly gained recognition for being a "closer," so to speak, turning his game up to a new level within the last few minutes when the game was on the line.
Wright also proved that he can be clutch when needed, with his high point coming on a buzzer beater to defeat VCU in a regular-season game last season.
Although ideally the Patriots will want to have a balanced scoring attack with multiple double-digit scorers, they are still going to need a heavy dose of Sherrod Wright, both on offense and on defense. There are a number of guys making their Mason debut on Friday, and the team could use a steady presence on the court to act as a security blanket.
Not only are they going to need Wright's scoring touch on offense, but they may need his ballhandling skills as well with Allen questionable for the game.
If Wright can be the player that Mason fans know he can be, without falling into the trap of feeling like he needs to do too much, he can be a major difference maker against the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers haven't been without their fair share of drama going into Friday's game.
Virginia's starting point guard heading into the season was supposed to be senior Jontel Evans, but a stress fracture in his foot and surgery has put him on the shelf for at least the opening week of games.
His replacement, Malcolm Brogdon, also went through foot surgery in the Spring and is not expected to play at Mason either.
The Cavaliers then turned to a point guard by committee approach, using freshmen Taylor Barnette and Teven Jones. That is, of course, before UVA announced that Teven Jones has been suspended for a violation of team rules.
All of this means that Virginia is going to have to rely heavily on junior Joe Harris to be successful in the early going.
Harris, much like Wright for George Mason, is going to have to factor heavily into Virginia's gameplan on Friday. Not only is he one of the most experienced players on the court for the Cavaliers, but he may also need to run the point, with only true freshman Taylor Barnette being the other option.
This makes Mason's defensive gameplan pretty simple: Stop Joe Harris.
This task will likely be made a bit easier by the fact that Harris may have to switch from his normal shooting guard position, but it will still be a major task nonetheless, falling to guys like Sherrod Wright, Corey Edwards, Vaughn Gray and maybe even Anali Okoloji.
If Mason, as a team, can find a way to slow down Virginia's top returning scorer and force one of the Cavaliers' inexperienced freshmen to try and beat them, it could be a very good day for the Patriots.
Almost every year, including last season, Mason seems to have a problem defending the three-pointer.
Already this season, some Patriots fans are concerned with Mason's ability to defend beyond the arc, after Division II Bowie State dropped 10 three-pointers and shot 40 percent from deep against the Patriots in their exhibition.
The last time Mason met UVA, three-point defense was a major factor in their loss after the Cavaliers shot 50 percent from deep, accounting for nearly a third of their points.
Luckily for Mason, Sammy Zeglinski, who torched them last December, has graduated. That doesn't mean that their defense beyond the arc can be any lighter, though. The three-pointer can be the great equalizer in any game, and unfortunately, Mason has seen that firsthand too many times.
Especially with Virginia running out as many freshmen and inexperienced players as they are, the three-point line could be a bit of a haven for them. If Mason does take an early lead like they want to, Virginia could start chucking bombs from deep early and often.
If Virginia's shooters are unconscious from three, then there's nothing that Mason can really do about it, but this is more about actual defense from beyond the arc.
No wide open shots, no taking off defensive series. This is not a job that falls solely on the guards either. Just about everyone on Mason's roster is going to have to make a concerted effort to contain Virginia from behind the arc, particularly if they are already ahead.
Strong defense combined with a steady offensive attack will almost assuredly give Mason the victory in their home opener.
It's always hard to predict basketball games, but it is even harder when it's the first game of the year. There are just so many new faces and so many unknowns that no one really knows what they are getting from the teams.
Overall, I look at the two teams and due to Virginia's slew of injuries, Mason is actually putting out the more experienced squad.
I do feel, however, that a lot of the game may hinge on Bryon Allen's availability. My gut tells me that he is going to play, but you never can be sure with back injuries, and Mason may always want to play it conservatively, not wanting to injure Allen with so many other big games ahead.
Overall, I think that Mason's style will definitely benefit them in this game, particularly if they are able to pressure Virginia's freshmen into committing turnovers.
Add in that the Patriots will be home in what is sure to be a loud and excited Patriot Center, and I think Mason definitely has an advantage coming into the opener.
I'm going to give this one to Mason in what will be a close, hard fought game, 72-66.