Tuesday marks a huge day in George Mason's season.
On Tuesday, the George Mason Patriots will meet the University of Virginia Cavaliers for only the sixth time in the school's history and for the first time since 1997. The head-to-head history has not gone well for the Patriots. Of their six matchups with UVA, the Cavaliers have won all six.
Virginia has looked extremely strong as of late. Taking advantage of a schedule that has not seen them play a true road game yet, the Cavaliers have stormed out to a 7-1 start, with their only loss coming by two points in the Virgin Islands to TCU. Virginia is coming off a week that saw them blow out Michigan, the No. 15 team in the nation, 70-58, so they are on a bit of a roll going into this one.
This will be the toughest team Mason has played all season, and will be a good barometer of how good the Patriots really are. To go down to John Paul Jones Arena and pull off a victory will be tough, but it is possible.
Here are five keys to the game Tuesday if Mason is going to win in Charlottesville.
The biggest reason for UVA's hot start is their staunch defense. The Cavaliers are yet to allow 60 points in a game, including holding two opponents, South Carolina State and fellow CAA member Drexel, to under 40 points.
The Cavaliers have done a great job not allowing any open shots. The defense moves extremely quickly and is fast to help their teammates in coverages. The combination has frustrated opponents thus far and has enabled Virginia to win games with only a flurry or two on offense.
If George Mason starts scoring, UVA may have trouble keeping up. Especially on the road, Mason's shooting behind the arc is going to need to be on point in order to accomplish this feat.
As of late, George Mason's shooters have been ice cold from three. In the past three games, Mason is 9-of-41 from deep, with five of those nine coming in their win over Towson on Saturday.
Much of the problems from the three start with Vertrail Vaughns. The redshirt sophomore is normally a sniper from three-point range, but as of late, he has lost his way a bit, hitting only one three pointer in his last 15 attempts.
On the bright side, Vertrail's shots looked much better in the second half of the Towson game, including hitting his last attempt, hopefully indicating that he's breaking out of his slump.
Mason can't go into Charlottesville forcing three pointers, but if they get open looks, they need to hit them. When Mason is hitting three pointers, their offense becomes tough to stop, as it spreads the defense and opens up the paint for the bigs. If Mason is on from deep, Virginia's streak of holding opponents under 60 will come to an end.
For as good as Virginia's defense has been, their offense has been lacking. The Cavaliers average a little over 66 points per game and only have two scorers averaging double figures: Mike Scott and Joe Harris. Luckily, their defense has masked their offensive inefficiencies, which were highlighted in their 49-35 win over Drexel.
All that being said, Virginia proved against a tough Michigan team that when the game gets close, the shooters start firing from deep. In that game against the Wolverines, the Cavaliers attempted 25 threes, making nine of them, including three long-range shots to pull away in the last four minutes.
The Cavaliers are shooting a respectable .331 percent from three point range, with sophomore Joe Harris leading the team in both attempts as well as makes from deep, with 39 and 12, respectively.
For Mason to limit this long range attack, they need great play from their guards, Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards, as well as an entire team effort. Against Towson, Mason allowed far too many open looks from three and were burned for it, allowing eight three-pointers to fall, keeping Towson in the game much longer than they should have been.
If Mason can tighten up defending the three, it will be hard for this anemic Virginia offense to get going, and that makes it that much easier for Mason to sneak away with the win.
Virginia, like most teams who struggle to score, does not like playing a fast-paced game. Mason, who has a high-powered offense when they want to and Paul Hewitt as a head coach, likes the fast paced game. The team that dictates the pace in this one will hold the advantage.
For Mason, dictating the pace is simple. The offense needs to move quickly, but more importantly, the defense needs to force Virginia to move quickly. This can be accomplished by running an effective press and forcing the Cavaliers to make mistakes and turn the ball over.
Mason's press has had some good success over the course of the season, causing teams to have to rush offensively and taking them out of their rhythm.
A key to the success of the press will be Corey Edwards, who is expected to return from a minor concussion suffered in practice. Corey is very quick and has fast hands, which has caused havoc to a number of teams this season, with 15 steals in the six games he has played in.
A caveat to this will be that Mason must try to quicken the pace without making it too fast. We saw early in the season what happens when Mason's offense tries to move too quickly: too many turnovers. If Mason can find that nice balance between fast and too fast, they will have control over the game and will have a much greater chance to pull the upset on the road.
This really is a key in any road game, but is especially true for Mason when they visit Charlottesville.
In general, college basketball is a very momentum based game, and everyone knows that there is no better way to keep momentum going than when the crowd is fired up.
Just ask any Mason fan who has experienced Richmond against VCU or Cleveland against Ohio State last year. When the crowd gets going, it is intimidating for the opponents and makes it hard to for the road team to do anything. Close games become blowouts real fast if one good run from the home side gets the crowd going.
The same applies for the John Paul Jones Arena. The building can get very loud when the students get excited, and with an in-state rival like Mason coming to town, there is sure to be a strong student turnout to the game.
Once again, in the Michigan game, the Wolverines were giving Virginia all they could handle until a 19-2 run in the second half ruined any chances for a Michigan win.
In order to keep the crowd under control and avoid long runs, Mason needs to play smart. They cannot panic if Virginia scores five quick points and immediately turns it over. If the Cavaliers start to get some momentum, Mason needs to either score back or use a timeout to settle the crowd. A run of their own to silence the students never hurt, either.
In the end, it's very simple. Perform well, and the crowd is not a factor.
The "Fear the Beard" tour rolls on into Charlottesville, and Mason is really going to need him if they are going to be successful against UVA.
Ryan Pearson has undoubtedly been the best player on the floor for George Mason, and maybe even the entire CAA, this season so far. On offense, he's been an absolute monster, averaging 19.8 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game.
Every single time Mason has needed a basket this season, it has been Pearson shouldering the responsibility. Every time he drives to the lane, you wonder how the ball is going to get in, but whether he is double covered, off balance or even falling down, Pearson has gotten the job done.
The Patriots are going to need Pearson on more than just offense for this one, however. Pearson will likely be matched up against Virginia's senior forward Mike Scott. Much like Pearson, Scott has been the man for Virginia this year, averaging a double-double with 15.9 points and 10 rebounds per game.
It is games like these where you need your senior leaders to really take over and dominate the game. The Pearson-Smith matchup will be key throughout, and for Mason to win, Pearson needs to get the better of this matchup. If he does, the Virginia crowd truly will be "fearing the beard," and Mason will be that much closer to a victory.
I'm not going to lie; this is going to be a tough game for Mason to win. That being said, it is entirely possible—if Mason shows up and plays to their potential—that the Patriots will escape Charlottesville with a huge victory.
Because I am an admitted homer for George Mason and am of course extremely biased towards them, I am still going to pick the Patriots, because I do truly think that they can win this game, and it's my prediction; I can say what I want.
In the end, I see this being an extremely close, hard-fought game to the finish, with Mason coming out on top, 65-63.