George Mason returns from their long break tonight against the Bucknell Bison in the Patriot Center at 7:00 p.m.
Bucknell has been a hot team of late, winning their last five games in a row. They have put together a pretty nice season so far, posting a 5-2 record with their only losses coming on the road to a tough Minnesota team and a ranked Vanderbilt team.
Their leading scorer and star player is junior 6'11" Mike Muscala, who has averaged 14 points a game and has been a havoc in the paint all season.
This is going to be a tough game, but a good test for the Patriots. So, here are five keys to the game to watch for.
This may prove to be one of the most important keys to the game.
Since Mason last played, Bucknell has played four games, winning all of them. On the one hand, this may mean that Bucknell is going to be tired entering the game, but with them having two days off since their last game, I think they will be ready to go for this one.
The concern for me is that Mason comes out sluggish after a long Thanksgiving break. We've already seen this year that when Mason starts quick, such as they did against Monmouth and Albany, it's going to be a good day for the Patriots. When they start slow and get behind early, like they did against Rhode Island and FIU, it has potential to be a long night.
If Mason can shake off the rust and fight through the turkey belly early, it should be a successful night for the Patriots.
Since their first two games of defensive ineptitude, Mason has shown improvements on the defensive end every single game. They capped it off with a masterful performance against Albany, where they held the Great Danes to 26.2 percent from the field and a staggering 8.7 percent from behind the arc.
A lot of this defensive success has started with strong, man to man defense from guards like Corey Edwards and Vertrail Vaughns, including the addition of a pestering full court press, forcing teams to speed up their offense, make mistakes and turn the ball over often.
Against Bucknell, the guards are going to have to come to play again, particularly against three point specialist Bryson Johnson, who drilled six threes in Bucknell's last game against Morehead State. Much like with Albany, Mason cannot give Johnson a clean look the whole night, or he will be tough to stop.
That being said, it can't be understated how important it is to contain Mike Muscala. The guy has been a dominant force in the paint and his huge size can cause matchup problems all night. The Mason forwards—particularly Mike Morrison, Erik Copes and Jonathon Arledge—need to stick to this guy all night and try to keep him away from the basket to avoid the easy points.
Muscala is also a proficient free throw shooter and gets to the line often, so Mason will need to find that healthy balance between close, tough defense, without fouling.
I have continually noted that Mason has shown steady improvement, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, each game. One of the big things that aided this improvement was that Mason was playing a ton of games in a short amount of time.
For the first time this season, Mason is coming off a long break. What they cannot afford is to revert back to old habits, such as moving too fast and being sloppy with the ball.
Luckily, this is also the first time Mason has had extensive practices between games, so hopefully the extra practice time has kept Mason sharp and continued to work on improvement.
As for the game, I'm looking for Ryan Pearson to keep the young Patriots under control offensively. He has been the clear cut leader of this team on the court, and hopefully he can help promote smart decisions on offense, while keeping up his torrid scoring pace.
One of the major reasons George Mason dropped their game against FAU was their inability to control the boards, particularly on defense. Mason allowed 13 offensive rebounds against the Owls, and in a game that went to overtime, it is clear that if Mason cut down the amount of second chances, they would have won the game.
Since then, Mason has done a great job going hard for every rebound, including posting 39 rebounds against Brown and 42 rebounds against Albany. It also helped contribute to their success, since their loss to FAU.
This can't change tonight. Luckily, for as good a scorer as Mike Muscala is for Bucknell, he is not the most prolific rebounder, which Mason can use to their advantage.
I'm looking toward Mike Morrison and Erik Copes to really handle this responsibility to box out Muscala and keep him away from the rim, limiting Bucknell to only one shot per possession.
What the Patriots did not expect was to be without redshirt sophomore forward Paris Bennett, but that's exactly what happened after Paris suffered an ankle injury during a closed exhibition with Marquette.
Paul Hewitt has said that he hopes Paris is ready to go for tonight and if he is, it could be a major boost for the Patriots. Now I'm not expecting Paris to go out there and average 20 points a night; he's just not that type of player.
What Paris can do is be a stat stuffer. A few points here, a few rebounds there, a steal here, a few assists there and you have a player who can make a difference.
The return of Paris will also help in the rotation of the forwards and in a game like tonight's, that extra body could be huge for Mason.
Hopefully we can see Paris out there tonight, because I'm very interested to see what he can do.
Needless to say, this is going to be a tough, hard fought game the whole way between two talented, evenly matched teams.
As for my prediction tonight, I expect this game to be close the whole way, but Mason's home court advantage gives them enough of a boost to pull off the victory, 78-69.
Just please, no more overtime. My heart can't take anymore overtime games for at least a few weeks.