Welcome back to the weekly rundown! Plenty of fun stuff to talk about this week after two wins and an AJ Wilson breakout, so let’s get right to it.
I gave the bench a lot of shit last week so credit where it’s due – calling AJ Wilson’s performance against CSUN a “breakout” is underselling it. It was more like a nuclear explosion. Consider the circumstances – Mason wasn’t getting stops on defense, lacked energy, and at the end of the first half the most important* player went down with a nasty looking leg injury. In only 22 minutes AJ did everything we expected him to do after watching him dominate Kenner League – he made savvy cuts to the basket for dunks, nailed a couple threes, grabbed strong rebounds, gathered two steals, and blocked an eye-popping eight shots. Some of those blocks were swatted into the stands, and others led to easy transition baskets. The sheer absurdity of blocking *eight* shots in a Division 1 basketball game stands on its own, but Mason doesn’t win without his other contributions, either.
AJ looked a little bit frenetic in his first few games, but he was totally in control against CSUN. He made two smart cuts to the basket for dunks. One happened as Otis was trying to inbound the ball and the imaginary five-second clock was ticking down – AJ realized no one was at the rim and blew past his man for an easy catch and slam. The second happened on an Otis drive, and as AJ’s defender collapsed on Otis in the paint, AJ cut hard to the basket, caught Otis’s pass, and had another uncontested dunk. In addition to displaying his tremendous athleticism he demonstrated a real feel for the game.
As a Mason fan this is the sort of performance I’m going to remember for a long time. As a season ticket holder, I’m positively giddy about what it unlocks this year.
Shooting on the floor at all times
Dave Paulsen has never had a team that took more than 35% of their field goal attempts from three, and that was in his first season at an undermanned Bucknell team. His teams usually shoot from deep far less than that. Through four games this season, 42.6% of Mason’s field goal attempts are from three, a dramatic difference from last year’s 27.6% three-point rate. Though Mason only hits at a 34.7% clip, I expect that to improve as the guys get acclimated with the different lineup combinations we’ll throw out there. AJ Wilson’s emergence should be fantastic for offensive spacing, as a frontcourt lineup with Wilson and Mar gives us decent size and still allows Mason five legitimate three-point shooters on the floor.
Go to the 2:58 mark of the Postgame Extra and you’ll see what I mean (subscription needed to the A10 website). This is one of AJ’s cut to the basket dunks I mentioned. No one is in the paint because every CSUN player is defending out to the perimeter:
I was sitting behind CSUN’s bench for the game and the coaching staff was yelling something like “watch out for the three!” before every under the basket inbounds pass. When everyone on the floor is a shooter, lanes to the basket will be there. Mason may not have Marquise Moore or Jalen Jenkins anymore, but they’re able to put an entirely different sort of pressure on the defense.
Now, let’s talk about positionless basketball for a minute. It’s something that Paulsen has talked about, but across the entire sport of basketball it’s more of a platonic ideal than anything else. To oversimplify, the idea is that you have a lineup where all five guys on the floor are threats to shoot or drive and can defend any position. You can switch seamlessly on defense, so you don’t have to worry about getting caught in bad matchups. Spacing is ideal because all players are threats to shoot, thus have to be defended out to the perimeter. Driving lanes open up, and since all five guys can get to the rim, an ecosystem now exists where you’ll create far more exploitable opportunities on offense than you’ll give up on defense.
As simple as this sounds in theory, it’s nearly impossible to pull off at any level. Guys with the body type, athleticism, and the savvy to defend both bigs and point guards are rare. Guys that can do that, and shoot threes, and get to the rim are roughly as valuable as the queen on the chess board. Finding one of these players is difficult enough; finding five of them to put on the floor at the same time is like getting struck by lightning twice. Most college basketball teams don’t have any.
Goanar Mar is the first player Mason has had who might fit this definition. At 6’7” he’s showed the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, as he did on his game-tying bucket that sent the CSUN game into overtime. He gets to the free throw line a lot, averaging 5.5 attempts per game. He’s got a smooth shot, hitting 6-16 threes this season. He leads his team in scoring while being incredibly efficient, averaging 1.58 points per field goal attempt. He’s credibly defended guys much bigger without fouling, despite being more in the mold of a wing player than a post player. He hasn’t been tested much against opposing guards, but that will likely change. With Wilson emerging and Calixte continuing to contribute solid minutes, Mar figures to get a lot more opportunities to defend smaller players, and there’s plenty of reason to think he’ll excel. He leads the team in scoring; rebounding has been spotty, but his career high of 11 against CSUN shows the ability is there. He’s four games into his college career and he’s done almost everything you would ask any player to do.
Players of this caliber are exciting not only because of what they are capable of, but also what they unlock for the players around them. When he’s not guarding the post, he’ll be a nightmare using his length to defend the perimeter. If you guard him with a big, he hits jumpers and pulls his defender out of the paint, creating space in the paint. If you defend him with a guard, he already understands how to use his height and length to score over smaller players. Mason can go big and play Mar at the 3 with Wilson and Calixte in the frontcourt; they can also continue going small, as they have been all season, and play Mar at the 4 with Wilson at the 5.
I think we’ll see a lot more of that lineup going forward, and Mar spends the rest of this season learning how to torture opposing power forwards with his already polished inside/outside game.
Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t give Otis his due in this column because he’s so damn good and consistent. This week he posted 39 points on 27 shots, 11 assists, and was 8-13 from three. In addition to his all-around rock-solid play, he’s also added a baseline fadeaway jumper to his arsenal. His ability to hit bad shots saved Mason several times this week – when the shot clock is dwindling and there’s not time to generate a good look, I’d rather have Otis shooting an off-the-dribble stepback than anyone else.
I generally think people tend to overstate the importance of hitting free throws, as there are plenty of studies that show the rate at which you get to the free throw line has more impact on winning than your actual free throw shooting percentage. That said, starting the season 29-55 from the line was downright fluky, and the regression to the mean we saw against CSUN, where Mason hit 19-20 from the line, came at just the right time. We’ll still have some off nights but I expect us to level off as a better-than-average free throw shooting team.
Second half defense
Against Binghamton and CSUN, Mason allowed the opponent to shoot 33-62 (53%) in the first half and just 14-51 (27%) in the second half. I don’t know exactly what’s being done differently, and Paulsen credited this turnaround to intensity rather than schematics when I asked him about it, but the team’s ability to clamp down in crunch time is something to behold. Binghamton and CSUN were getting whatever looks they wanted in the first half and were totally stifled in the second.
The other freshmen
Greg Calixte gave us some big minutes this week, finishing bunnies, grabbing rebounds, and playing solid defense. He even got the start in the second half of the CSUN game for an injured Jaire, which speaks to how highly the coaching staff thinks of him. As far as Javon Greene goes, he’ll be fine. One of his three attempts against CSUN drew only backboard – that tells me his struggles are more related to nerves/getting into the flow of the game than anything else. With Jaire’s status for Cancun up in the air, Javon figures to get a lot of run. Karmari Newman had a nearly identical start to last season (Javon has missed his first 10 threes, Karmari missed his first 8) and I’m confident Javon will get in a groove once he sees a few go down. In the CSUN postgame presser, Paulsen shouted him out as the next guy to have a breakout game since he’s been so good in practice.
I’ll see you back here next week. Until then, go Mason!