The countdown to college basketball season is just over a week away. With a new season there is always a a new team, new players, new competition, and of course new story-lines.
For George Mason basketball anticipation continues to grow (not only for the men’s team, for the women’s as well). On the men’s side it is the third season with Dave Paulsen at the helm of the team. He enters this season with only players that he recruited to play at George Mason.
Pressure of course has been added after last season’s success. Winning 20 contests for the first time since the 2012-13 season and the special development of double-double phenom Marquise Moore has revitalized the Green and Gold fan base. Positive trajectory is always a way to win the fans over, but sometimes heading in the right direction is more than just improving your record.
An unpopular truth heading into the 2017-18 season is that there are more questions than answers surrounding this team. Some could say there are more questions heading into this year than last. Before the season starts, lets lie down some realistic expectations, unbiased, fair, and attainable.
How many wins should George Mason win this season?
Last season the team nearly doubled their win total from 2015-16. Keep in mind, last year’s group was a special team. Easily the team surpassed everyone’s expectations, reaching the 20-win mile-marker and moving into the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10. Just breaking .500 would have been a good season last year after the tailspin that transpired under the previous coaching staff.
Everything came together with the roster; Moore’s double-doubles (16.9 ppg, 10.9 rpg) night-in and night-out, Jalen Jenkins presence in the post, Otis Livingston II and Jaire Grayer continuing two grow. If you expected that success, you are a liar or Coach Paulsen.
This year, well its hard to gauge.
Not only did Moore and Jenkins graduate from the program, but five players transferred out. Only two of those transfers though played reasonable minutes. Experience is hard to find on this roster, only five players on the team wore a jersey with Mason across the front of it last season.
Flat out, 20 wins will be difficult to accomplish again; not impossible, but difficult. Without delving into head-to-head match-ups, nine wins in conference play for a .500 record (the same as last year) is fair. The Atlantic 10 as a whole is shaping up to be tougher than last year though. Without going into the postseason, that leaves Mason having to get an 11-2 non-conference record.
Outside of match-ups at Louisville, at Auburn, and hosting Penn State, the non-conference schedule is fairly easy. Games that really with give an idea into Mason’s outlook will be vs. William & Mary, and their Cancun Challenge opponents (Louisiana Tech and either Fresno State or Evansville). Assuming Mason wins the rest, that’s seven wins, give Mason two out of three in the middle section, and one against a Power 5 team.
Combine 10 non-conference wins with nine conference wins, that is a 19-12 record. The same as last season’s regular season mark. Lowest record is probably three losses below that (16-15), best is at two more wins with, take your pick on non-conference vs. A-10 play (21-10).
Placement in the Atlantic 10?
Looking at how the conference is shaping up, this could be an incredible season in the Atlantic 10, which will help Mason overall but not in terms of standings. Below are the opening tiers of the conference:
Heavyweights (2): Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure
Talented, but question marks (3): Dayton, VCU, Saint Joseph’s
Close to breaking through (2): La Salle, Davidson
The pack (5): Saint Louis, George Mason, Richmond, George Washington, Fordham
Rebuilding (2): Massachusetts, Duquesne
Things always change, and preseason predictions are dumb but this is how the conference looks at the moment. George Mason needs to prove that they were more than just Moore dominating the floor, which they are but it might take a while to piece together.
Mason will not break into that second tier, but getting into the top half of the conference is not out of their reach. Nine of their 18 games are against the “Close to breaking though” duo and ‘The Pack.” Plenty of room to break through and only six games against the top five.
Cap conference play at 13 wins of an 18 game season and bottom it out at six, again nine is a fair bet.
Look at the roster, there are only 10 scholarship players with one forced to red-shirt due to transfer rules. It is not likely that any of the walk-ons will see any significant playing time so that leaves the roster with nine guys.
The three returners from last year are locks to start: Livingston, Grayer, and 6’4″ wing Justin Kier, no debate about it. From there you could make a case for the remaining six to get a starting spot on November 10.
Last season, Paulsen successfully utilized a four-guard line-up, he is even preparing for the future of “position-less basketball.” There will be times where he will have to turn to that again in 2017-18.
Watching highlights on Twitter, it is easily to be hyped on the 6’7″ red-shirt freshman A.J. Wilson. His typical position is as flex-four, something Mason has not seen in the past decade, but none of his highlights are against college basketball teams. More likely than not it will take a while to start Wilson for the Patriots. As soon as he is able to assimilate to the college game, a starting spot has his name on it.
Projected starting line-up on Nov 10: Livingston, Kier, Grayer, Ian Boyd, Daniel Relvao
Now things change as the year goes on, but early on experience will trump potential. If there is any change to anticipate, it would be freshman forward Greg Calixte in for Relvao.
Unlike last season, the roster this year allows the coaching staff to move pieces around. If a team has two post players, Paulsen can start two post players. If a team only has one traditional post player, his four-guard system can overload an opponent. Wilson, as well as Goanar Mar, provide some incredible flexibility that will be new to Paulsen’s style at George Mason. Game to game and minute to minute, the line-up should be different not only to counter another team, but to experiment with chemistry.
Projected starting line-up in A-10 play: Livingston, Kier, Grayer, Wilson, Calixte
Don’t get your NCAA Tournament hopes this season. Unless the year falls apart, the Patriots will at the very least be eligible for the CBI Tournament once again. Although after last season’s result, George Mason might not want to take on the financial burden. Additionally, the CBI likes to choose different schools from year-to-year so there is no lock that Mason will be asked to come back.
The NIT is interesting, because both Mason and the conference will be a factor. First of all, Mason has to take care of business this season in non-conference play and in the Atlantic 10. Paulsen-led teams normally do their job, so that should not be an issue. Last year though there were three games that you could say without denial that Mason should have won.
Win those games, sneak a good non-conference win out, and one or two in conference, and then the Patriots are in the conversation. The second biggest factor is ensuring the rest of the conference does their job in non-conference play, which the Atlantic 10 struggled with last year.
Unofficial odds are just above 50 percent.
Who will be the go-to player for George Mason?
Every year George Mason has a go-to player that accounts for a majority of the offense. Whether it was Sherrod Wright, Shevon Thompson, or Moore somebody took charge. So who will it be this season?
The easy answers are juniors Livingston and Grayer. Both players increased their scoring totals and shooting percentages from the field last year. With both now entering the season as two-year starters, they will be the most experienced players on the roster. No one can predict whether or not they will live up to the pressure. Livingston will be the point guard instead of splitting time with Moore bringing the ball up the court and Grayer will be the guard that crashes the glass better than any other guard on the court.
A majority of the offense will go through both of them.
Do not forget about the quiet Kier. While he does not fill out the box score, he rarely makes mistakes and is a great role player. Last season he showed flashes of attacking the rim from outside and with a year under his belt he could really blossom.
Defensively the team should be better. Freshman Javon Greene, who will be getting a lot of minutes, is fun to watch as a one-on-one defender. The team is longer which really bodes well for their defensive scheme.
It will not take long for people to fall in love with 6’8″ Calixte. He is a huge post presence on both offense and defense, and also plays with fire.
My pick: Jaire Grayer
There are no seniors on this team. Easily this season should be looked as a stepping stone for something great in the 2018-19 season. Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter will be eligible to start playing, the core-group will be seniors, and the scholarships will be filled.
But players do not think that way during games.
Growing pains will be prevalent in the early portion of the season. The coaching staff’s main goal isn’t to go undefeated before the season flips to the Atlantic 10 conference. If all goes as planned the non-conference action will fix the kinks and find out who plays well together.
This season will be one to watch Mason grow and see the coaching staff really go to work on these young players and fully develop them. We all saw the staff draw out Moore’s potential in two seasons, time to see the coaches’ work on players who are here to stay a while.