Have you temporarily forgotten George Mason University is in the Atlantic 10 Conference? That’s ok, you’re not alone! Much like the Spiders of Richmond and the Minutemen of UMass, the George Mason Patriots are a comfortable arms length away from your Dayton Flyers in the A10, and as such, always have a few friends that are willing to sit down and talk some hoops with us in a polite and civilized manner.
For this version of the Blackburn Review Q&A session, I caught up with my good pal on twitter, Petey Buckets. (@peteybuckets) Petey is a diehard GMU fan and follows the A10 as closely as anyone around the league. I asked him a few things about our upcoming tilt in Fairfax, and asked him to describe the temperature of fans in green and gold.
I also did a Q&A for the GMU boys on giantkiller.co that you can find here.
Introduce yourself to the loyal followers of the Blackburn Review. When did you graduate from Mason? What made you decide on the cruel fate of blogging about Atlantic 10 hoops?
My freshman year was Mason’s final four year and, like a heroin addict endlessly chasing that first high, I’ve been to just about every home game since. I graduated from Mason in 2009. I’ve been a college basketball nerd since high school and an active Mason basketball message board poster for years. The guys from Giant Killer saw my game recaps on the Mason Hoops message board last year and asked if I wanted to start writing for them. I’m taking it much too seriously and spending way too much time on it, so naturally I decided to start studying the entire A10 instead of just my team.
I can relate, even in an off-year like we’re having.
Are you surprised with what the conference has produced this year? I think a lot of people felt this was going to be a 1 or 2 bid league this season…and, well…here we are.
The part of my brain that thinks the future is always going to look like the past just assumed someone was going to fill the void and we’d produce 2-3 tournament teams. I think I’m most surprised that after the top 3 (Rhody, Bonnies, Davidson) there’s a steep dropoff. VCU is KenPom’s 4th ranked team in the A10 and they’re at 129. That would have been *11th* as recently as 2014. The lack of tournament resumes is one thing, but it’s really concerning that the top, middle, and bottom of the conference are all much weaker than in years past.
Couldn’t agree more. Personally I’ve been saying that the Big East/AAC shift and the strength of the power 5 overall is finally starting to trickle down to lesser recruits in the A10. All speculation at this point, but I certainly hope this is just a 1-2 year thing and not the new norm around here.
Ok, so lets talk Mason. Give me the synopsis of the basketball year for the Patriots of Fairfax. It’s been anything but pretty.
This Mason team plays their asses off but has limited scoring, size, and experience. Due to transfers we have eight scholarship players – two juniors, two sophomores, and four freshmen.
Otis Livingston is the guy you’ve gotta worry about – he scores or assists on almost half our buckets and is shooting about 41% from deep. Jaire Grayer has been slumping a little bit but is a solid three-point shooter and our second leading scorer. Jaire has assumed the Marquise Moore role of guard who plays much bigger than his size – he’s our leading rebounder and second leading shot-blocker.
Other starters are:
Justin Kier, a solid defensive guard who barely shoots threes and can get to the rim a little bit.
Goanar Mar, a freshman wing who has looked great in some games but has disappeared quite a bit recently
Greg Calixte, also a freshman, who’s a really nice looking traditional big man
Off the bench come Ian Boyd, Javon Greene, and AJ Wilson. Boyd and Javon are athletic guards that haven’t been efficient scorers. AJ has game-changing athleticism but is still learning how to harness it. He leads the team in blocks despite only playing 11.5 minutes per game.
As a team, Mason doesn’t shoot threes very well, which is just killer for such a small lineup. We’re poor defensively and concede a ton of open threes. We’re very good in transition but don’t run very much. If I have any criticism of Paulsen’s gameplans this year, it’s that we don’t try to force turnovers and get out in transition where we can succeed. Paulsen’s style has always been to play straight up defense, hold the opponent to a low shooting percentage and keep them off the boards, but our personnel isn’t well equipped to do that right now. Of course, with only eight scholarship players we can’t really expect to run too much either. It’s a growth season and there are probably no good answers that make us competitive this year.
I think many expected a slight drop-off for Mason this season after losing Marquise Moore, but has this season been a disappointment from where you’re sitting?
I wouldn’t call it a disappointment, but at the same time I thought we’d be better. Marquise gave us one of the most randomly fun seasons in a while but he killed our spacing because he couldn’t shoot. Davidson defended him with Will Magarity, who never left the paint that game. I thought we’d have better spacing, which would help offset the loss of Marquise, but we don’t have any sharpshooters outside of Otis and Jaire so you can cheat off our guards outside the arc. I thought we’d be better defensively because we have more size than we did last year, but we have too many freshmen and we’re small on the perimeter. The end result is that we’re worse on both sides of the ball. I think I’ll split the difference and say it probably wasn’t reasonable to expect to be much better than we are after the transfers left the roster the way it is.
Is the fan base starting to grow anxious about the direction of this program. Coming from an objective perspective it feels like Mason hasn’t been relevant in ages, at the very least, not since they joined the conference in 2013.
Some are, some aren’t. Dave Paulsen is in year three of what was clearly a rebuild. Most of Hewitt’s recruits left when he came in, so he had to restock the roster. The first year was a punt. Last year was a lot of fun and we exceeded the very low expectations we had. Paulsen got a one year extension at the end of last season, so he’s under contract for another four seasons after this one. It’s pretty clear that as far as the AD is concerned, the clock starts ticking next year and Paulsen has a lot of eggs in the “next two seasons” basket.
Like most fan bases, different people are in different places. One of the season ticket holders in my section was yelling “Bring back Hewitt!” at the bench after St. Bonaventure ran us out of our own building. If you know anything about Mason basketball history and the culture surrounding it, you know that’s an insult of the highest order. (Sully: He got an extremely favorable contract that entailed getting paid by GMU long after he was gone) Others are supremely confident Dave is the guy and act like it’s unfair to be upset about anything. Again I find myself splitting the difference. I think Dave brings us back to the tournament at some point, but I also think it’s very reasonable to wish we were better in year three.
I don’t want to talk too much about the boring stuff, but at a program level Mason has made great strides under AD Brad Edwards in areas like fundraising, gameday atmosphere, and facilities, so there are other indicators that the program is being set up for long term success.
A lot of what you said resonates with the UD fan base at the moment, for what it’s worth: Many are questioning the Grant hire, many are awaiting the future of what he can do, almost everyone realizes the athletic department has us heading in the right direction.
So going off of what you said, George Mason strikes me as a program with the money, facilities and location to be a great program in this conference. In your humble blogging opinion, what’s holding them back?
I think you’re right, and Larranaga was on the verge of making Mason a consistent top-25ish NCAA tournament team before he left. Paul Hewitt takes most of the blame for setting the program back, as well as former AD Tom O’Connor since he’s the guy who lost Larranaga and hired Hewitt. Hewitt was a very good recruiter but an awful game coach who lost frequently with superior talent, but our last two coaches proved that you can recruit plenty of talent to Mason.
What’s holding back the Paulsen era to this point is that we haven’t had the horses. Six of Dave’s recruits transferred out of the program last season. I think Dave is an excellent game coach but the jury is still out on talent acquisition. We’ve got some positive signs. All of our freshman were solid recruits. Goanar Mar was big time, coming to Mason over places like Xavier, Minnesota, and other Big 10 schools, and AJ Wilson chose Mason over Penn State and Wake Forest. We’ve got two really good recruits coming in next season, as well as UVA transfer Jarred Reuter coming eligible. We’ll find out next year if Paulsen’s staff can recruit and develop A10 caliber talent. If the answer is yes, Mason will quickly become relevant again.
Encouraging news to say the least, the A10 can certainly reach its peak when at least one team from DC is challenging things in the national landscape.
So whats the strengths of the team this year?
It’s simplistic but the strengths are basically “Otis Livingston is really freaking good.” The team walks a tightrope because it’s almost impossible for us to win when he doesn’t play well. We can hang with good teams when Otis is scoring and Jaire is hitting threes, but if both of those things aren’t happening it gets dicey quick.
We’re one of the best transition teams in the country, which is frustrating since we don’t push the pace at all, as mentioned earlier.
Also, free throw defense. Third in the nation baby!
I know this could get lengthy, but where do they struggle?
I’ll try to keep it short. On offense, there’s no reliable scoring outside of Otis. Otis is the only guy that can break you down off the dribble and create his own shot with any consistency. If you can lock him up we’ve got a lot of limited options and the offense quickly bogs down. Jaire is the only other guy who can hit contested threes. How much the rest of the supporting cast scores is conditional on matchup and how wide open they’re able to get.
On defense we’re a mess. We play a pack-line scheme that our personnel isn’t well suited for. We go under on ball screens almost exclusively so good shooters always have space to get a shot off (this helped Matt Mobley drop 35 on us). Despite going under so much, we’re still not very good at keeping opposing guards out of the paint, and we don’t have any true rim protection to make up for it. We also like to double the post and force kickouts to shooters. Problem is our smaller guards have trouble getting back out to effectively contest shots. Our perimeter defense has been pretty miserable at times.
A point of frustration for me has been that we don’t force turnovers. We’re dead last in the A10. It has never been Paulsen’s style, even dating back to his days at Bucknell, but I would love to see Mason jump passing lanes and get more runouts.
“On defense, we’re a mess” really hit home for me.
Where were you when GMU beat UConn to go to the final four? Set the scene for our readers.
I wish I could find my ticket so I could tell you the seat number, but it was my freshman year and I was at the Verizon Center for the game. I was in one of the seats where my heart was in my throat because it looked like Denham Brown’s buzzer-beater attempt was going in. The metro ride home was all Mason fans and pure pandemonium.
Predict the result of the game, fool!
Road woes and all, I still think Dayton takes it. You’re well suited to punish us from distance and we don’t have anyone who can stop Josh Cunningham if you decide to just keep feeding him. I’ll say 75-69 Dayton.
Thanks again to Petey for taking some time to catch up with me for the site. He has informed me that the Mrs. Buckets is not entirely happy about him going to the game on Wednesday over Valentines Day, so in effort to restore chivalry, Petey decided to push dinner up to Tuesday night. The things we do for our basketball teams.
Wear Red, Stay LOWD.