George Mason Basketball: What We've Learned so Far
The season may be only five game old, but by now, Mason fans are starting to find out what to expect from their Patriots in this 2012-13 season.
For one, Mason Nation is going to need to get its blood pressure in order before every game. Not only have the Patriots already experienced elation and massive heartbreak, but four of the first five Mason games have ended with a score differential of five points or less.
But there is more to be learned from this early season run than just Mason's penchant for nail-biters. After five games, it is fair to say that these observations are trends rather than random aberrations.
In lieu of doing a game preview of Mason's home matchup against Boston University on Saturday, I will take a look at some of these observations, to see what we have learned about this Mason team thus far.
Just for the record though, Boston is a very young team that is struggling, and provided Mason doesn't come out lackadaisical as they had a tendency to do last season against weaker opponents, the Patriots should be able to cruise past the Terriers at home. Granted, I know better than to think that "should" and "will" are never synonymous when it comes to college basketball.
But enough speculation, let's talk about what we know, or think we know, about this year's George Mason Patriots.
This Is a Jump-Shooting Team
We knew going into the season that Mason's offense had to change.
With the graduations of Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson, it did not seem likely that the Patriots could continue to run the offense through the low post, at least not right off the bat.
Many Mason fans, including myself, figured that the offense would be based primarily on fast breaks and slashing towards the basket.
Instead, what we have seen is a Patriot team that is not only fearless about taking jump shots, but has also become deadly accurate at hitting them.
Thus far this season, the Patriots are shooting nearly 47 percent from the field and nearly 42 percent from three-point range. Factor in an occasional long-range heave, and the Patriots are hitting about half of the shots they take.
Which is an outrageous percentage when the team is primarily taking jump shots.
Another point on the three-pointers is just how frequent they have been falling for the Patriots. Mason has hit 31 three-pointers. That puts the team on pace to have 186 threes by the end of the regular season.
Normally, I hate to live by the jumper, die by the jumper offense, but with Mason, it doesn't seem like that's the case.
For one, with so many guys able to shoot an effective jump shot—including big men Jonathan Arledge and Johnny Williams—someone seems to be hot every night.
Also, as they proved against Mercer, not having the three-pointer won't kill them. In that game, they went 0-8 from long range, but they shot nearly 59 percent from inside the arc and won the game.
At the end of the day, the offense may not be exactly what Patriots fans envisioned. However, as long as the jumpers keep falling, it is exactly what Mason needs to be effective this season.
They Foul Way Too Much
Mason has also showed a much improved defense this season.
In all three victories this season, Mason has held opponents under 60 points. Aside from the occasional defensive lapse from behind the arc, Mason has been tough to score on this season.
After being the masters of the turnover last season, Mason has also managed to flip the script a bit, forcing 15.2 turnovers per game.
Much of the success can be attributed to high-pressure defense and the full-court press, a relatively new wrinkle that has been added from last season.
The one caveat of this improved defense has been Mason's unbelievable foul rate over the first five games.
The Patriots are averaging a staggering 20.4 fouls per game. Twice already this season, the Patriots have had a game with 25 or more fouls, albeit one of them may have been thanks to an overly zealous officiating crew.
As for the other occasion, against Bucknell, it arguably cost Mason the game. With Johnny Williams, Jonathan Arledge and Marko Gujanicic fouled out, as well as Erik Copes still serving his suspension, Mason had no answer for Bucknell's Mike Muscala. His double-double helped Bucknell survive a late Mason surge.
Mason may have a talented defense, but good defense does not need to mean overly aggressive fouls. In the past three halves, opponents were already into the bonus at around the 10-minute mark, sometimes earlier.
There is no defense for a free throw.
Fouls also kill the pace and momentum of a game, which is especially detrimental to Mason, which likes to score fast and keep the game moving quickly.
If Mason can find a way to stay aggressive, keep opponents off the line and keep players on the floor, it could develop one of the stingiest defenses in the country.
Sherrod Wright Is a Stud
Going into the season, all eyes from Mason Nation were squarely on Sherrod Wright.
With last year's two leading scorers graduated, the pressure was on for Wright to be the man who picked up the slack on offense.
The year started ominously though, as Wright was disciplined for a violation of athletic department rules in the offseason, which caused him to miss Mason Madness and Mason's exhibition game.
Luckily, none of that has had any visible effect on Sherrod during the season.
Wright has been nothing short of spectacular these first five games. The knock on him last season was a lack of aggressiveness, but that is clearly behind him. Wright is shooting more this season and has been the workhorse for the Patriots, averaging over 32 minutes per game.
Sherrod also leads the team with 16.2 points per game.
Even more importantly, Wright has not lost the knack for the late-game heroics that made a name for him last season.
Already this year, Sherrod has come through twice with the game on the line.
Against Mercer, in the game's key possession, Wright drove for the decisive layup. Although Mason would come up short against New Mexico, Wright's four-point play in the waning moments was stunning.
The biggest transformation of Wright has been in his demeanor on the court.
Last season, he just felt like a talented role player when he was on the floor. This year, although he may not be as vocal or dramatic as Pearson or Morrison, there is no doubt that he is the leader of the team during the game.
If Wright can keep up this blistering pace, he could have a very special season. He will certainly be a contender for Mason's second CAA Player of the Year award in a row.
The Freshmen Are Raw but Definitely for Real
Going into the season, we really didn't know what to expect from Mason's two freshmen, Marko Gujanicic and Patrick Holloway.
Sure, we thought that they would be good based on their prior experience. But as is often the case with freshmen in college basketball, until you see what they can do against NCAA opponents, you never really know what you have.
Luckily, I think it's safe to say that Mason's freshmen have impressed.
Marko Gujanicic has seen more playing time than anyone could have expected in the early going. The freshman from Serbia has clocked in 23.8 minutes per game, but there is a reason he's played so much.
Part of his expanded workload has been picking up the slack in the paint while Copes served his suspension. But I don't love Marko down low, and at times he just seems overmatched in the paint, despite his frame.
Where Gujanicic shines, though, is in his uncanny experience as a freshman and in the matchup problems he creates.
Having played overseas, Marko is no stranger to big-time basketball, and it shows. He just seems confident on the floor, and there are plenty of times when you forget he's a freshman. Marko is also shooting 57 percent from behind the arc, which is absurd for a player who is 6'8" and 226 pounds.
As for Patrick Holloway, there is only one word to describe him: fearless.
His game is definitely not complete yet, and he has his occasional freshman goofs, but Holloway is an assassin from deep ranger. He already has six three-pointers in his young career and has cracked double digits twice this season.
Personally, I get the feeling that Holloway has the potential to be a superstar at Mason as he gets older and develops the rest of his game. He has natural talent that you can't teach.
Overall, both of these guys are raw, and both of them are going to do things that make you shake your head every now and again. But at the end of the day, they are both very talented and will be assets to Mason all season long.
The Present Is Frustrating, but the Future Is Bright
All right, let's discuss the 500-pound gorilla in the room now.
George Mason is currently 3-2. If you had told me before the season that Mason would beat UVA and place third in the Paradise Jam, I probably would have believed you, no questions asked.
So why am I, as well as every other George Mason fan, not satisfied?
New Mexico. I think we can just leave it at that.
Mason is a last gasp three-pointer at Bucknell and a poor inbound pass against New Mexico away from being, at worst, 4-1 and, at best 5-0. With my green- and gold-tinted glasses firmly on my face, I truly believe that Mason could have beaten UConn in the Paradise Jam final.
Mason has played better than its 3-2 record and should be getting a lot more respect, but that's just how it goes sometimes.
So it's obvious why Mason Nation is a bit frustrated right now.
But that being said, the future of this program, both immediately and long-term, is bright.
For this season, Mason's chances to impress are far from over. There are still key games against Maryland, Richmond and USF on the schedule. Mason has proven with its play this season that it has a shot in every one of those games.
In terms of winning the conference, CAA favorite Drexel received devastating news this week that its leading scorer, Chris Fouch, will miss the rest of the season with a broken ankle (via Philly.com). This news opens up an already wide-open race for the NCAA Tournament automatic bid.
In the long-term, there are no seniors on this team, and the team is already playing at a high level. We talked about Mason's freshmen and their potential. In all likelihood, Mason may be able to run out this same group next season, a year older and a year better.
So yes, there's still a bittersweet taste from what happened in the Virgin Islands. But George Mason appears to be going places.
Not just for this season, but for a long time to come.