George Mason Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Bucknell
George Mason opened their season Friday night with an impressive 63-59 victory over ACC foe and in-state rival Virginia, the first in the program's history.
As is the case with most first games, the Patriots had plenty of aspects of their game that they need to tighten up, most of which will be addressed in this article, but on the whole, there was a lot more good than bad that came out of their victory over UVA. Overall, there seems to be some excitement among the fanbase surrounding the team.
There will be no rest for the weary, however, as the Patriots are back in action Tuesday night on the road against the Bucknell Bison out of the Patriot League.
Bucknell is a strong team with big expectations this year, being picked to contend for their conference's title and NCAA tourney bid. The Bison are also coming off a big opening-day upset of their own, knocking off Purdue on the road.
This game is a rematch from last year's game in Fairfax, which saw the Patriots come away with an exciting 61-57 victory over the Bison.
This is going to be a huge matchup between two premier mid-majors, and it should be one heck of a show.
Here are a few keys to Mason coming out of this fight victorious and with a 2-0 record.
Improve on the Free-Throw Shooting
Right off the bat, the most glaring issue for the Patriots against Virginia was their abysmal free-throw shooting.
It feels like every year Mason struggles at the line, but on Friday night it began to border on embarrassing, as the Patriots shot only 42 percent from the charity stripe, including a stretch in the second half that saw them make only two of 12 free throws.
Fifty percent is subpar for free-throw shooting. Anything under that is just painful, and it can seriously hurt a team in the long run.
Look at a game like Friday's. Mason hung on for dear life at the end and only won the game by four; meanwhile, they left 11 points on the free-throw line. If Mason makes even half of those, the game is a laugher.
Now, granted, I do believe that some of Mason's woes at the free-throw line were a case of early season rust and jitters. I say this because someone like Sherrod Wright went 1-5 at the line despite shooting almost 86 percent from the line last season.
The odds of him being that cold at the line again all season are long.
Freshman Marko Gujanicic, who also struggled mightily at the line, is also said to be a much better free-throw shooter.
But all that being said, anomaly or not, Mason needs to take advantage of free throws. If last year was any indication, this game could go down to the wire, and clutch free-throw shooting may decide if Mason leaves Bucknell with a win or a loss.
Contain Everyone Past Muscala
Muscala is a senior center for Bucknell and is not only one of the premier centers in the Patriot League, but is also fast becoming one of the best centers in all of college basketball.
He was named to the Lute Olson Preseason All-American team, a Mid-Major All-American, and is even being looked at by NBA scouts for when he graduates.
Needless to say, Muscala is the real deal, and Mason is seriously going to have their hands full with him on Tuesday.
In all honesty, with Mason's best defensive big man, Erik Copes, sitting this game out due to his suspension, I truly don't know how Mason is expected to stop Muscala, who is fresh off a double-double against Purdue and went for one against Mason last year as well.
My answer to this problem? One man can't beat a whole team.
Obviously the Patriots are going to do what they can to stop Muscala, but even if he goes for, say, 25 points, it won't be enough to beat Mason provided they contain the rest of the field. Basically, just don't let anyone else beat you.
Mason is going to need to tighten up a perimeter defense that allowed Virginia to go 7-of-12 from behind the arc in the second half in order to ensure that Mike Muscala doesn't have anyone else helping him out on the scoreboard.
Work Hard on the Boards
Once again, without Erik Copes, this key becomes a bit harder to do, but it's far from impossible.
Another one of Mason's shortcomings on Friday was their issue with rebounding, particularly on defense. The Patriots allowed Virginia to grab 11 offensive boards, leading to far too many second-chance points.
Part of the issue was that Mason was outsized down low, but part of it at times was also effort. When guys on Mason fought down low and tipped the ball around, they actually didn't do half-bad competing with Virginia's bigs.
Where the frustration would come in was either when Mason conceded a rebound on defense or didn't follow their shots on offense, leading to an easy rebound for the Cavaliers.
Once again, Mason's opponent is going to have the advantage down low, so Mason is going to have to work that much harder to keep the rebound margin close.
Honestly, I'm more concerned about the defensive rebounds than offensive. Of course it is nice to get second chances on offense, but in this game, I think it is going to be more important to limit Bucknell's opportunities to score.
Obviously you look to guys like Johnny Williams, Jonathan Arledge and Marko Gujanicic to lead the charge in this effort on the glass, but don't discount someone like Anali Okoloji, who seems to be flying around the court at all times, from getting his hands on or at least aiding in a few rebounds.
It's going to take a lot of effort, but if Mason can keep Bucknell from completely controlling the boards, it could go a long way to picking up a victory over the Bison.
Draw Fouls in the Paint
There is one way to try and stop Mike Muscala that I didn't mention before: Keep him off the floor.
One encouraging thing about Mason's victory over Virginia was the team's adjustments in the second half to attack the Cavalier defense more.
It resulted in foul trouble for Virginia, more opportunities for Mason and more room for the Patriots on the outside to get open for three.
Mason is going to need slashers like Okoloji and Sherrod Wright to attack the lane from the very start of the game for a number of reasons.
From an offensive perspective, it is a way to get some points with high percentage shots. Although the Patriots did shoot over 50 percent from the field last game, it is unreasonable to expect to win every game with only jump shooting, so a good mix of jump shots and drives to the lane would be helpful.
Slashing to the paint will also help the Patriots defensively.
Muscala has proven in the past that he is liable to foul trouble. If you can get a couple of early fouls on him, it will not only send him to the bench for a while, but it also will make him far less aggressive on both sides of the ball, which will help the Patriots offensively, defensively and on the boards.
Of course, if you can pair this key with the improved free-throw shooting from earlier, it could give Mason a real advantage throughout the game and could be a big reason why Mason escapes Bucknell with a victory.
Get Vertrail Vaughns Going
Mason is a very deep team, and the Patriots thrive when not only their starters are performing well, but when their bench is able to give key minutes too.
For the most part Friday night, Mason's bench was able to provide a spark, with Paris Bennett, Corey Edwards and Marko Gujanicic providing the Patriots with 12 points, despite being shorthanded.
The one man on Mason's bench who really seemed to disappear against Virginia was redshirt junior Vertrail Vaughns.
Two season ago, Vaughns was Mason's version of instant offense. He could come off the bench, drain a few threes, and sit back down.
Last season, however, we saw a sophomore slump of sorts with Vertrail. His three-point percentage plummeted from nearly 50 percent to a modest 35 percent, and his fouls per game doubled as well.
Now, some of Vertrail's struggles seem to be due to his increased workload. Vaughns had never been a starter throughout his college career, and his minutes per game nearly tripled from his freshman to sophomore seasons, accounting for some fatigue and weak legs.
All of this fails to explain what happened to Vertrail on Friday, though.
He attempted four shots, two of the from behind the arc, and not only missed all of them, but they were all short. What I saw personally was a lack of legs in his shot, which can be easily corrected, but there was a fear last season that Vertrail started to get in his own head once the threes stopped falling, making it harder to get out of his funk.
Whether Vertrail's struggles on Friday were mental or physical, and whether or not they were just a fluke, Mason needs its instant offense to come back against Bucknell.
When Vaughns is hot from deep, it can be a backbreaker to opponents and a huge boost for the Patriots in their quest for a 2-0 start.
So how is this game going to go?
Both squads have a lot of veteran talent, with Mason featuring six juniors and Bucknell featuring eight juniors and seniors.
Both teams close out games well, with Mason pulling away in a tie game with three minutes left and Bucknell outscored Purdue 16-9 over the last five minutes of the game to come back for its victory.
Pretty much, these are two pretty even teams, and it may come down to one or two possessions that decides this one.
Being the admitted homer that I am, I'm still going to go with Mason getting the victory, but it is going to be close.
I liked what I saw from Mason's three-point game, and that's always a great equalizer when playing on the road. Free throws may also be the difference, so if Mason can improve from the charity stripe and keep the Bisons, who went 20-of-25 on free throws last game, away from the line, it may end up being the difference.
I'm going to say Mason wins this one 66-64, but either way, it is going to be an entertaining game and a great showcase for some of the mid-major talent in the country.