For the first time since 2012, George Mason and VCU will face each other in a significant match.
The former CAA rivals will square off on Friday in EagleBank Arena to renew a rivalry that has been one-sided in the post-Jim Larranaga era of George Mason Basketball. After his departure, the program has been 2-6 against their rivals from Richmond.
A new leaf though is about to be turned.
Mason (10-3) is entering with their best record to start the season since 2008-09 when the team started 14-3. The Patriots have a nine game winning streak, last accomplished in 2011, the team’s final NCAA tournament berth. Of the nine victories, four were over top-150 RPI opponents.
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Many believe this is the new age of George Mason Basketball. In only Dave Paulsen’s second year he has the team competing at a level and with a swagger not seen in over a full graduation class. A regional spotlight has slowly shifted towards Fairfax led by two over-looked guards, Marquise Moore and Otis Livingston II.
Together they average 33 of Mason’s 76 points a game. While they score, they also dish out seven combined assists a game due to the attention they draw in the paint.
Moore averages a double-double, 18 points and 11 rebounds. He has recorded eight double-doubles and a triple double while becoming the nation’s leading rebounding guard.
The Patriots though may have met their match against VCU (10-3). With active hands and an aggressive defense, the Rams force opponents to over 16 turnovers a game; Mason’s key weakness.
Senior, JeQuan Lewis is the team’s leading scorer and defender, with 15.4 points and 2.2 steals a game. As a likely matchup for Moore, it will not be the first time on the season Moore has gone up against the team’s best player.
The obstacle for the Patriots will be the interior presence of Mo Allie-Cox. On the season he has 30 blocks against post-players and driving guards. With nearly 10 points a game, Allie-Cox will be a target for the Rams with the Patriots lacking depth in the paint.
Jalen Jenkins will be, and has been, quietly an integral member of the roster for Mason. His shooting efficiency of 69.5 percent leads the team and still remains a rebounding threat with Moore in the lineup. When Moore and Livingston draw attention on their drives, Jenkins has been left open for an easy jumper or lay-in.
Rebounding will be an advantage for the Patriots with Allie-Cox and Jenkins tangled under the basket. Leading the Atlantic 10, and ninth in the NCAA, Mason has a +10.5 rebounding margin. Moore will need another big night on the boards against a team that only brings in 33 rebounds a contest.
Mason’s defense this year has thrived off a preventive style. Using help interior defense, the guards pack the paint with Jenkins and force the ball out for semi-contested mid-range to three point jumpers. As a result, the Green and Gold have held opponents to 38 percent shooting on the year and are 7-0 when they hold teams to under 40.
The team does not look for steals, they do not immediately look for the fast-break but rather focuses on rebounding and preventing second-chance opportunities.
VCU’s pick and pop will be a slightly different offensive scheme for the Patriots. It will force switches and constant communication. Against Houston earlier in the season, Mason struggled and left shooters wide open.
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The winner of the contest will be the earlier conference leader in the Atlantic 10, with both teams tied for the best non-conference record.
So far, Dave Paulsen’s squad has passed the initial test in non-conference play despite a rocky start. On Friday, it will be Mason’s biggest test on the season.
Young Mason fans will get a chance to experience a ruckus EagleBank Arena for the first time. Fairfax has tended to reward winning George Mason teams. This game has the chance to turn EagleBank into a huge home-court advantage that the program thrived in back when it was called the Patriot Center.
By the way, Mason is 13-9 against the Rams at home.
No matter the result of this game, Mason should remain a threat in the Atlantic 10. However, this will surely be a measuring stick for the fans and the rest of conference find out if George Mason is for real this season.
Prediction: Mason 78 VCU 76