Welcome back to the weekly rundown! As is tradition, we’ll run through some good things, some not so good things, and some generally interesting things from this week in Mason basketball. Since we’ve only got two non-competitive losses to talk about, let’s start with a breakdown of what’s going wrong. This week, I’m going to do it by asking myself some simple questions, then attempting to answer them. We’ll start with the most obvious question.
What’s going wrong?
You might remember this points in the paint/points from 3 chart I put in the rundown a couple weeks ago. The idea behind it is that the most valuable shots in basketball come from in the paint, where your chances of connecting are highest, or from beyond the arc, where the shots that do connect are worth the most. If you’re losing this battle, free throws and two-point jumpers are the only way to make up the deficit. Free throws can be viable, but it’s tough to make up a significant deficit with them. Two-point midrange jumpers are low value, and given the way today’s college game is played, if you’re taking a lot of them it’s a good indicator you’re not able to generate easier shots.
So where has Mason been recently?
|Team||Points in paint||Points from 3||Total|
|William & Mary||30||24||54|
Mason fought to a draw here against William & Mary, won the battle against NC Central, and then got obliterated this week by two very good teams. As to the question of whether you’d lose the points in the paint or the points from 3 battle, you can choose your own adventure. I don’t think there’s a good answer here, but it’s all connected. The patchwork post defense leads to a lot of open threes. Goanar is playing out of position defending the post, and Mason’s pack-line scheme borrows perimeter defenders to harass down low. Corner shooters are left open, and the result is the eighty minutes of cat-and-mouse we witnessed this week. Mason can look competent against inferior competition, but well-rounded teams are finding it much too easy to score from anywhere on the floor.
Is there a silver lining here? Any glimmer of hope at all?
Maybe. I’m reaching, but Georgia Southern and Penn State didn’t shoot particularly well from deep, combining to go 15-45. There’s a chance that Dave and company have the perimeter rotations where they want them and the AJ/Calixte combination will give us much better post defense as they mature. Of course, that’s the kindest possible reading of what we saw this week.
What exactly can be done to fix the defense?
Dave tinkered with a 1-3-1 zone for a few possessions against Penn State. The zone was designed to keep Calixte in the paint, which was probably Mason’s best hope of neutralizing Penn State’s tremendous size advantage. It felt like it had some potential, but Penn State was getting easy buckets no matter what Mason threw out there. I think we see a lot more Calixte and AJ as the season goes on. Defending the 5 with Goanar does not look like it will be viable in A10 play.
So the defense is one thing, but why is Mason having such a tough time scoring?
Great question! It’s a simple combination of not having a lot of three point shooting and not having high level finishers around the rim. Mason shot 4-23 from deep against Georgia Southern followed by and atrocious 0-14 showing against Penn State. That’s 4-37 on the week, which drops Mason to 30.5% from deep this season, 308th overall in the NCAA. Mason probably doesn’t win these games with mediocre three point shooting, but if that 4-23 number is even marginally better, like 8-23, these games don’t feel quite so hopeless.
Defenses have pretty clearly started packing the paint against Mason as well, which further complicates things. In the Georgia Southern game Mason clearly made a concerted effort after halftime to start getting the ball in the paint and to the rim, but the ability to finish wasn’t there, and Mason started the half 0-8 from the field while GSU built a 17-point lead. Mason shot 20-40 from 2 against Penn State and only 12-33 from 2 against Georgia Southern. Mason is now 192nd in the NCAA in 2 point percentage at 49.1%.
All you did in those two paragraphs was list out the bad shooting numbers. We already knew that. Why can’t Mason generate easy buckets?
Okay, fine. There’s not a player that’s a consistent threat to get to the rim, and I believe it all starts from there. I have a ton of respect for Kier trying to be that guy – he took it right at Mike Watkins, one of the best shot-blockers in the country, several times – but that’s not really his game. Boyd’s soft floater looks wonderful, but he’s only deploying it sparingly and Mason needs more of him mixing it up in the paint. Goanar has been quiet of late and the other forwards, AJ and Greg, aren’t yet polished enough in the post to do much more than catch-and-dunk. Mason’s size deficit is such that even trying to enter the paint is perilous – they finished the week with 36 turnovers to just 12 assists.
Otis is the one player on this team who can consistently create offense from nothing, but he was 6-21 this week. Jaire has been mixing it up a little more down low lately, but he’s still primarily a three-point shooter, and he was only 1-10 from three this week. At this point in the year Mason is rolling out a very small lineup that doesn’t shoot well enough to be guarded tightly on the perimeter. Defenders sag off guards to cut off driving lanes, and Mason’s cadre of guards doesn’t feature the individual creativity necessary to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint. Scoring points feels like an accomplishment because there are plenty of possessions where the ball swings around the perimeter harmlessly. On a fundamental level, there’s simply not a lot of ability to put pressure on the defense to make it bend.
Whether or not getting to the rim opens up threes or hitting threes opens up lanes to the rim is kind of a chicken-or-egg question that has a different answer on every team. In Mason’s case, I fear it might not be answered this year.
Did anything good happen this week?
Alright, I liked what I saw out of Justin Kier this week. He took 10 shots against Penn State and 13 against Georgia Southern, and even though he was only 9-23 from the field he got to the line, hitting 11-12 free throws. The numbers weren’t great (he also had 2 assists to 8 turnovers), but it stuck out that he was aggressive where others were content to be passive. I don’t know who’s going to emerge as a scoring threat, but I love that Justin is trying.
AJ had his first career double-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks against Georgia Southern. We’re still waiting for him to string together consecutive impact games, but it was the kind of tantalizing performance that makes you remember he’s a can of whoopass waiting to happen. Combine that with Greg’s start and solid performance against Penn State, and the bigs are a lot more trustworthy than they were a few weeks ago. This Mason team walks a tightrope – they’ll never beat good competition if Otis and Jaire aren’t scoring – but the bigs progressed this week, and you’d never know it based on the results on the scoreboard.
Is all hope lost?
Absolutely not! Georgia Southern and Penn State are probably tournament teams. My biggest concern for this team is that OOC play is just about over and there’s still not an identity that I can see. I don’t know where consistent points come from outside of Otis, Jaire, and Goanar. If one of those guys is off, I don’t know who steps up. I don’t see a clear path to generating the consecutive stops necessary to go on runs that increase chances of winning. I don’t know who or what exactly it is this Mason team does that strikes fear into opponents. More than anything, Mason’s defining characteristic seems to be playing small-ball in name only – it’s a quite conventional style, but manned by a lineup that’s much smaller than optimal. This week showed us the limits of how far that can go.
I’m taking a Buckets Family Vacation next week, so no write-up until 2018. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a wonderful new year to you and yours. I’ll see you back here in two weeks. Until then, go Mason!