Welcome back to the George Mason basketball weekly rundown! We’ve got one awful loss and a fun homecoming win to talk about. Let’s get to it.
The Fordham loss
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that this was one of the most disappointing losses of the Paulsen era and it really hurt Mason’s chances of getting out of the A10 tournament’s Play in Game (PIG). Mason led by as many as 17 and went on a 21-0 run in the first half. You don’t need me to tell you Mason should win games like that against inferior opponents.
Fordham’s style relies on forcing a lot of turnovers, ostensibly so they can take more shots than the opponent each game. Fordham is a poor shooting team but is 33rd in the country and 2nd in the A10 at forcing turnovers, per Kenpom. If you told me before the game that Mason would take more shots and shoot a higher percentage than Fordham I would have predicted a 20 point win. Both of those things happened and Mason still lost.
The 21-0 first half run was a bit of an illusion, as Fordham missed plenty of open shots. Mason stuck to the defensive strategy of harassing the post by having a guard collapse, which comes with the hazard of leaving perimeter shooters open. Fordham’s only post threat is Prokop Slanina, and I would have liked to see Mason defend him with Greg Calixte straight up and stay home on shooters. According to hoop-math.com, Fordham is 282nd in field goal percentage at the rim, and while they are also one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, getting hot from three was the only way they were getting back in the game. They hit ten second-half three pointers to steal this one.
Fordham went to Duquesne and ran them out of the building on Saturday, so there’s a chance that Fordham is getting hot. As far as the standings go, Mason blew an opportunity to push three games clear of Fordham and stay out of the six car pileup that also includes GW, UMass, St. Joe’s, La Salle, and Dayton. Instead, at 5-7 after the homecoming win, Mason is tied for eighth but only a game ahead of three teams tied for tenth. The race to stay out of the PIG will intensify and get even uglier in the remaining six games.
It’s puzzling that GW coach Maurice Joseph didn’t have Yuta Watanabe spend the game in Otis Livingston’s shorts again. It worked better than he could have hoped in the first game, with Otis scoring 3 points on 7 shots and adding 3 assists against 5 turnovers. This game, Yuta started possessions defending Otis, but simple ballscreens set by Justin Kier usually commanded a switch and Otis spent plenty of the game being guarded by Terry Nolan Jr. GW also went to a 2-3 zone for large parts of the game with Yuta spending his time at the top of the zone. Though Otis was only 4-10 from the field, he scored 14 points and had 9 dimes as GW had trouble keeping him out of the paint. Mason hit 23 shots from the floor on the game, and Otis scored or assisted on 13 of them.
GW’s zone left the paint vulnerable, as interior defense is not a strength of theirs. AJ Wilson came off the bench and added 11 points, 5 rebounds, and all sorts of energy. He still makes some freshman mistakes (he missed a putback dunk and occasionally gets lost on defensive rotations) but his overall contribution was overwhelmingly positive. In addition to 4-8 shooting, he drew at least three fouls in the paint. He’s much quicker and more athletic than GW’s frontcourt and he was key to busting the zone in the first half.
Mason did an excellent job executing a defensive gameplan designed to keep Yuta Watanabe, GW’s best player, out of the paint. Although Watanabe had 19 points he took 17 shots to get there, and according to the play by play feed all 17 shots were jumpers. Yuta shoots 62% at the rim but just 38.3% on 2 point jumpers and 36.8% from three, per hoop-math.com. Keeping him away from the paint and making him rely on his spotty jump shot is easier said than done, but Mason pulled it off on Saturday.
One final thing to mention about the homecoming win is the balanced attack – all eight players scored and no one had more than 14 points. Mason’s path to victory becomes much easier when the supporting cast shoulders some of the scoring load, and Kier (13), AJ (11), Javon (7) and Calixte (7) did just that.
Jaire Grayer’s struggles
Jaire scored 25 points on 13 shots against St. Louis back on January 13. In the six games he’s played since then, he’s averaging 11 points on 10.5 shots per game, including shooting only 6 of 28 from three. He had 8 or more shot attempts in the first 18 games Mason played; he took only 7 shots in the road game at George Washington and had only 4 against Fordham.
I think it’s fair to wonder if this is a slump or if he’s been playing through the injury that kept him out of the Richmond game. He went 2-3 from deep and added 12 rebounds, a block, and a steal against George Washington on homecoming, so hopefully that’s a sign that he’s back to normal. Mason needs him at 100% to close out the season strong.
Javon Greene’s development
How good you think Javon Greene is going to be is a matter of how closely you’ve been paying attention. He’s averaging 10.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game over his last three, and at 13-27 from the field he’s not even shooting particularly well. He’s 18 for 25 at the rim this season with only eight of those buckets assisted, which says something about his ability to create. After starting the season 12-59 from three, he’s 4 for his last 8.
His RSB40 (rebounds, steals, and blocks per 40 minutes) is a very respectable 8.8. RSB40 is a metric used to assess athleticism amongst guards, the idea being that rebounds, steals, and blocks are “athletic” plays. An RSB40 of 9 is generally considered in the range of athletic enough to play in the NBA. Javon is knocking on the door. Once his shot starts falling (and I’m of the opinion that it’s when, not if) he’ll be one of the most dangerous guards Mason has had in some time.
Quick thoughts about this week’s games
Mason is tied with Dayton in A10 standings at 5-7 and a game ahead of La Salle at 4-8. This week’s games have big implications for how the final A10 standings are going to shake out, and Mason isn’t favored by Kenpom in either of them.
One thing to know about Dayton is that they’re clearly underachieving relative to their talent level – Josh Cunningham is in the conversation for All A10 honors and reminds me a lot of Ryan Pearson – and part of that is how badly they’ve played away from home. They have only one true road win the entire season, beating Richmond at the Robins Center in early January. They won a neutral site game against Ohio in the third game of the season and otherwise have lost nine road/neutral site games, including their last four in a row. I have no idea if that holds up but if you’re looking for a reason to be hopeful, that’s it.
La Salle under Giannini is consistently one of the most hot and cold programs in college basketball. They’ve beaten one Kenpom top 100 team (Temple) and they’ve got two Kenpom sub 200 losses. They led Villanova at the half but are 3-8 in their last 11. They might score 100 on Mason’s leaky defense or they could lay an egg. Flip a coin.
That’s it for this week. See you back here next week and go Mason!