This year's George Mason team may be one of the most Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type basketball teams we have seen in a while.
The Patriots are currently 5-2, though they could easily be 7-0 and just as easily be 3-4.
The name of the game, really, has been consistency. We've seen flashes of brilliance from the Patriots and signs that they can be an unbeatable team when clicking on all cylinders.
Other times, and sometimes in the even in game, that dominant team disappears and lets lesser squads like Boston University take them to the absolute limit.
With all of this in mind, you will have to excuse me if I sound a bit perplexed, wondering which George Mason team will show up Sunday at 2:30 p.m. against the 5-1 Maryland Terrapins in the BB&T Classic.
This will be the seventh matchup between the two schools, with the most recent being a 78-54 Terrapin victory back on December 4th, 2004.
The most important game the two teams played, however, was back in 2001, when the No. 3 seeded Maryland Terrapins defeated the No. 14 seeded George Mason Patriots in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament, 83-80, en route to a Final Four appearance by Maryland.
The Terrapins have won all seven matchups between the two schools.
Clearly, this will be a tough game for the Patriots, and to win, they will need the "good Mason" to show up for all 40 minutes. Here are five keys to watch for if Mason is to be successful Sunday afternoon.
Although George Mason has already played three neutral site games in the Paradise Jam, Sunday afternoon will be unlike anything it has experienced this season.
The Verizon Center is an NBA arena, which seats 20,282 people. To put that in perspective, the Patriot Center, which has been the largest arena capacity-wise Mason has played in this season, seats 10,000 people.
Now granted, George Mason has some very good history with the Verizon Center, but 2012 is long removed from 2006, so you can throw the history books out the window. Plain and simple, if Mason lets the atmosphere and pressure from such a large venue get to them, its going to be working with a handicap from the start.
Maryland, on the other hand, has already played in a large venue this year and performed quite well. The Terrapins opened their season against the No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats in the brand new, 17,732 seat Barclays Center, and performed quite well, dropping the game 72-69 after a huge second-half rally.
Long story short, the atmosphere of the Verizon Center isn't likely to faze Maryland.
Mason cannot afford to clam up due to nerves in the early going and let Maryland jump out to an early lead. The Terrapins are tough enough this season without being handed a double-digit lead.
Whether it takes an extra early shootaround, some set plays to get easy, early baskets or just watching the 12:15 p.m. game before them, Mason needs to find some way to get acclimated to the arena before the opening tipoff.
If Mason can hang with Maryland for the first five minutes, or even get the early jump on The Terrapins, it will do wonders for its chances to win the game.
Turnovers have not been the glaring problem for George Mason like they were last season. Gone are the days of 13 first-half turnovers, but that does not mean that the turnover issue isn't still a key to every game George Mason plays this season.
Three times already this season, Mason has put up 55 or less points. In those games, against Mercer, Boston and Rhode Island, the Patriots had 19, 16 and 15 turnovers, respectively.
It is painfully apparent that 15 or more turnovers will cripple this offense.
Now granted, Mason actually won all three of those games, but that was mainly on the strength of its defense, and in all likelihood, 55 or less points is not going to cut it against Maryland. The Patriots are most likely going to need, at minimum, 65 points against the Terrapins but probably more. The more empty possessions, the less chance of winning Mason has.
Turnovers have completely swung games and outcomes for the Patriots thus far this season.
Mason allowed the Rams to go on a 16-0 streak over the end of the first-half into the first five minutes of the second-half, greatly aided by five Patriot turnovers to start the half.
If the Patriots get turnover happy and allow Maryland to launch a big run on them, there will probably be no recovery from it.
For Mason to beat the Terrapins, it needs to take care of the ball, and that means no careless passes or drives to the lane, and please, for the sanity of all Mason fans, safe, consistent inbounding.
If Mason can keep its turnovers in check, say 10 or less, I think it gives the Patriots a great shot to knock off Maryland.
The other major key to getting The Patriot's offense on track is for them to find their three-point shot early on in the game.
The three-pointer is the great neutralizer in college basketball, and if it's falling, it can be a nightmare for any team to defend.
Mason has proven this season that they can certainly shoot the three, but the long range jumpers seem to fail them from time to time.
Look at the game against Mercer for example: The Patriots shot a dismal 0-8 from deep in that game against the Bears, scoring a total of 55 points.
When the Patriots are hot from deep however, they look like an entirely new team. Against Quinnipiac, the Patriots shot 50 percent from beyond the three-point line en route to a 74-58 rout of the Bobcats.
Now, this is not to say that I want Mason just chucking threes all game. In a perfect scenario, Mason can get a few early threes, which will open up the paint a bit, giving the Patriots more room to operate their offense and giving them a more balanced attack.
Luckily for the Patriots, they have a host of jump-shooting specialists, and it will be vitally important to find out who is hot in the early going.
If Mason can make the Verizon Center rain threes, it is going to be real tough for the Terrapins to survive the onslaught.
For Mason to win this game, it also needs to keep its players on the floor and out of foul trouble.
Let's revisit Mason's game against Bucknell for a moment.
The Patriots were already without starting center Erik Copes due to a suspension. During the game, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Arledge, and Marko Gujanicic all managed to foul out. With no big men left of the floor for the Patriots, Bucknell's center, Mike Muscala, had a monster game, featuring 14 points and 15 rebounds, four of which came of the offensive variety.
It is clear that Mason has a very deep bench. After all, only seven games in and every single scholarship player has scored for Mason this season. That being said, that bench gets a lot thinner and a lot shorter if the fouls begin to pile up.
Maryland has a 7'1" Ukranian animal named Alex Len. Currently, Len is Maryland's leading scorer, with 15.2 points per game, and its leading rebounder, with nine rebounds per game.
Due to guys like Alex Len, Maryland is averaging 46.2 rebounds per game, good for fourth highest in the nation.
Mason is already going to have a tough time containing Len on the boards, but if its big men start fouling out of the game, it will be near impossible.
That's not even beginning to talk about putting the Terrapins on the line, where they are shooting 68 percent on the season.
Fouling has been a problem at times for The Patriots this season, but they will need to keep it under control Sunday, otherwise Maryland will feast on the second-chance points and freebies, crushing any chance of a Mason victory.
One thing we can definitely say about this Mason team is that it is battle-tested.
Six of The Patriot's first seven games have been decided by a margin of five points or less. When it comes to dogfights, this team is already more than experienced.
Almost every time Mason is in one of these late battles, there is one player who rises to the occasion: Sherrod Wright.
Wright is Mason's leading scorer and its clear go-to option when the going gets tough and the game is on the line for the Patriots.
Now to be fair, point guard Byron Allen has also had his fair share of big-time shots this season, but no one on George Mason is as consistently clutch as Sherrod Wright.
Wright has had some help along the way when it comes to these late, tight games, mainly in the form of suffocating defense.
Multiple times this season, Mason has slammed the door shut on its opponent's offense in the last few minutes, allowing for late game heroics.
This was most prominently on display against Boston University, where the Patriots held the Terriers without a point for the last three minutes of the game.
Once again, I understand that Maryland is not Boston University, but that being said, Mason has been tough on all of its opponents in the last four minutes, so why not the Terrapins too?
If Mason can keep the game close going into the last four minutes, between its experience in that scenario, its shutdown defense and Sherrod Wright's penchant for closing out games, you'd be hard pressed to put your money against Mason finding a way to pull it out in the end.
This is going to be a tough, hard-fought game for the Patriots, and they are going to have to bring their A game if they want to leave the Verizon Center with what could be a signature victory.
I have said it before, and I maintain that when this team is at its best, it can hang with just about anyone in the country. The fear, of course, is that when The Patriots are not at their best, they are an extremely flawed bunch.
There is a reason, however, why almost every one of The Patriots' games have been close this season: They seem to rise and fall to the level of their opponents.
Considering the location and their opponent, I do think that the Patriots are going to be amped-up for this game, and that may help them throughout the contest. For example, we saw an amped-up version of the team against Virginia in the season opener.
Overall, I think that the first 10 or so minutes are going to be vital to this game. If Maryland comes out and is hitting every shot it takes while Mason looks sluggish, there may be no way to recover.
However, if The Patriots can prove to themselves and everyone watching that they are just as good as the Terrapins in the early going, it may be just what they need to get the upset done.
As always, I'm a blatant homer and truly believe that Mason is going to come out firing for what may be its most important and probably highest-scoring game of the season so far.
Look for a clutch-three from Sherrod Wright in the last 30 seconds to ice the game for the Patriots, who I am picking to win 74-70.