The George Mason Patriots are about to embark on what may be their biggest and toughest three-game stretch of the season, facing three quality opponents from tough conferences in a home, neutral and road game. The first of these games will take place Saturday at 6:00 on the NBC Sports Network against the Northern Iowa Panthers.
The Panthers have done well this season, bringing a 5-3 record into the Patriot Center for their first true road game of the season.
Mason on the other hand, is coming off a tough loss to Maryland in the Verizon Center, followed by a fairly dominating win over UMBC at home to run their record to 6-3.
This is a return game from the last time these two teams met, in the 2011 Bracketbusters, which saw the Patriots escape Cedar Falls with a 77-71 victory, in what truly was a showcase of mid-major powers.
This year should be no different, as each team is talented and desperate for a big-time, impressive win for their resumes come March.
Once again, Mason is going to be in for a fight, so let's see what they will have to do to come away with their second victory over the Panthers in three years.
Get the Bigs Involved in the Offense
As we've said a few times before, George Mason is clearly a jump shooting team this year.
They have their fair share of snipers and the offense seems to run around taking threes and getting enough space for mid-range jumpers inside.
However, as good of shooters as the Patriots are this year, it feels like at least once a game, and sometimes more often, Mason's offense goes ice cold and points are nearly impossible to come by.
Much of the reason for the droughts could be attributed to Mason's penchant for low-percentage jump shots, either because they can't get open enough or because the shots are just no longer falling.
Last game however, we saw Mason start to show more concentration on using the paint in their offensive sets, and that may be the key to scoring consistently.
Using the big men in the paint more can help this team offensively in numerous ways.
It can give Mason some high-percentage shots to get quick points, it will help take some of the load off Sherrod Wright to get all the points, and it will even open up the perimeter for the jump shots that Mason loves so much.
Just last game, we saw Jonathan Arledge, Marko Gujanicic and even Erik Copes go for double figures against UMBC, so the big men have the ability to score.
I really look to Johnny Williams to step up on Saturday though. He has had two rough games in a row and should be primed for a breakout against the Panthers.
Mason has proven so far this season that their defense is the quickest and most effective way for the Patriots to score.
They also have showed that if the defense is forcing turnovers, Mason can be nearly impossible to beat, but if they allow their opponents to keep the ball, the Patriots can become beatable.
Over the first 13 minutes of the UMBC game, George Mason forced the Retrievers into 12 turnovers, leading to Mason taking a commanding 25-7 lead.
In the last 27 minutes, Mason only forced 6 turnovers and UMBC actually outscored Mason by seven.
Northern Iowa is considerably better than UMBC, and if the Retrievers can outscore Mason due to lack of turnovers, one can only imagine what the Panthers have the ability to do.
Defense has been a strength all season for the Patriots, and for Mason to win on Saturday, they will need it to continue to be.
I'm anticipating seeing a lot of half-court traps and full-court presses from Mason throughout the game to try and badger UNI, particularly Deon Mitchell, who averages 3.3 turnovers a game, and force turnovers that lead to quick points.
The catch with pressing of course is that if it gets broken, it can lead to easy points for your opponent, so the Patriots will have to have a high success rate with presses or be sure to hustle back and set up their tough half-court defense if they don't come away with the ball.
Defend the Three-Pointer
As good as Mason's defense has been, there has been one blind spot that has plagued them all season: three-point defense.
I say it every week and I'll say it again, three-pointers are the great equalizer. They can make a tough team unbeatable and keep a mediocre team in a game.
Northern Iowa traditionally is known for their sharpshooting from beyond the arc, and this season is no different. As a team, the Panthers are shooting over 37 percent from deep.
The two men leading the way for UNI from three-point range are Marc Sonnen and Matt Bohannon. Mason will see plenty of them throughout the game Saturday, and although neither of them are in the top two for points per game for the Panthers, both can be game-changers if Mason doesn't sure up the three-point line.
A lot of times, Mason seems to just get lazy on the defensive side of the ball, and allows for their opponents to take open threes, hoping that they'll just have an off night.
With UNI, Mason cannot afford to take that chance. They need to pressure the Panthers on the perimeter all night and force them to take tough shots if they want a three-pointer.
If UNI comes out and is lights-out from three, defense or no defense, then more power to them, but if they are hot from beyond the arc simply because Mason is allowing them to be, then that is not acceptable.
Mason has shown that when motivated, they can have as tough a defense as anyone in the country, and hopefully playing a big game at home against a good shooting team is all the motivation Mason will need to put on a defensive show.
Keep the Panthers off the Free-Throw Line
Mason's other problem on the defensive side of the ball that we've seen creep its head every now and again has been fouls.
Mason's high foul rate was a huge factor in their 69-62 loss to Maryland.
The Terps managed to get to the line an astounding 39 times against the Patriots, converting for 23 points. Mason only had 21 attempts from the line all game.
The baffling part of it all is that allowing their opponents a high free-throw rate seems to only be a problem in certain games for the Patriots. For example, against UMBC, the Retrievers only saw the free-throw line 12 times.
Call it bad luck, call it tight officiating, but whatever it is, it is clearly a problem that cannot crop up again on Saturday.
We talked about UNI's great ability from beyond the arc, but even that pales in comparison to their free throw shooting prowess. The Panthers are shooting over 77 percent from the line this season, and have only missed 21 free throws all year.
Mason plays too strong on defense to allow free points to spell their doom.The idea is to make Northern Iowa earn all their points, not give them free ones at the line.
Especially late in the game or if Mason has a lead, the Patriots cannot afford to let UNI get to the line too often, because that is exactly how the Panthers can ice a game, or even claw back into one.
Figure Out the Point Guard Situation
The real Achilles heel for Mason all season, however, has been their inconsistency at the point guard position.
At the beginning of the year, it looked like Mason's point guard woes from a season before were behind them, after junior Bryon Allen posted 13 points and five rebounds, including a clutch three at the end of the game, to beat ACC foe Virginia.
Since then though, Allen's performance has gone up and down. He will have great moments, like his buzzer-beater to get past Boston, and ugly ones, like going 0-of-8 from the field against Maryland.
Not all of the blame for the problems at point guard can be put on Allen though, as sophomore Corey Edwards has struggled at times too, mainly due to his lack of consistent scoring and low assist numbers.
Just last game, Paul Hewitt pulled the trigger and started Edwards over Allen for the first time all season. The question now becomes, was that a one-time thing or a permanent switch?
And even then, it still sounded like Hewitt wasn't satisfied, openly suggesting that redshirt junior Vertrail Vaughns may see time running the point in the near future.
The frustrating thing about it all is that clearly the ability is there for these guys.
As previously mentioned, Allen can go on scoring tears and has a flair for the dramatic, while Corey has flashes of brilliance both on the offensive and defensive ends.
So why can't they put it together consistently? Is it nerves, or just a general lack of basketball IQ?
Whatever the reason, Mason needs their point guards to get it together, not just for the game on Saturday, but for the rest of the season to be successful as well.
Like I said in the opening, this will not be an easy victory for either team, and odds are that the game will still be up for grabs into the last four minutes of the game.
I still like Mason's chances in a fight to the finish, just because they have been in that situation more often that UNI has this season, and are more experienced in finding ways to come out with a victory.
Also going in Mason's favor is the extra day of rest they get over UNI heading into the contest, as well as this being the first true road game the Panthers have played all season.
The Patriot Center is never an easy place to play for road teams, and with the game being on a Saturday night, they place should be pretty full and plenty loud.
Overall, I think these teams are pretty evenly matched, but the rest and the home court has to give Mason the advantage.
I'm going with the Patriots in this one, 67-62.