It is time to start respecting George Mason.
The Patriots now have their most wins ever in a non-conference slate at 11 and are doing it in a way that may be more reminiscent of one of their conference rivals: with a havoc-style defense.
Mason has been banged up all season, but its team chemistry has helped it fight. Preseason All-Atlantic 10 Second Team player Justin Kier has only played five games because of leg and foot injuries, but is supposed to return for the TCU game on Dec. 30.
In his absence, others have stepped up. AJ Wilson is a major contributor, ranking eighth in the nation in block percentage and 18th in offensive rebounding percentage. Junior Javon Greene also helps out the Patriots’ defense, as he’s 98th in the nation in steal percentage. Another key piece to this Mason team is sophomore Jordan Miller. He has been more of an offensive help as he is currently ranked 42nd in the country in three-point percentage.
On Saturday night, the Patriots hosted a pesky UMBC team. They led for nearly all 40 minutes, but their offense struggled at times. Mason shot 41 percent overall and 31 percent from behind the arc.
“We gotta be more consistent offensively, we have a lot of room for improvement,” head coach Dave Paulsen said afterwards.
This wasn’t nearly their best win this non-conference. The Patriots won the Cayman Islands Classic over Thanksgiving. They started the tournament with a 60-53 win over Old Dominion, an NCAA Tournament team from last year, then they beat Nebraska by 19 the next day. Mason then won the title against arguably one of the best mid-majors in the nation during the past couple years, New Mexico State, 68-64.
The Patriots have two big challenges upcoming during New Year’s week as they play TCU out of the Big 12 and A-10 favorite VCU. Their elite defense, which is ranked in the KenPom top 50 in five categories, will be put to the test in those two matchups. And although Jamie Dixon’s squad has struggled early on this year, the Patriots could have a good chance to pick up a Quadrant A win going into Atlantic 10 play.
At the moment, Mason has the chance to pick up three Quadrant A wins in Atlantic 10 play and four Quadrant B wins. Their great start might be accredited to Paulsen not looking towards conference play just yet. He is looking one game at a time.
“It is good in November and December, but it sucks come January,” Paulsen said of the A-10’s hot start. And he is right. But finish in the top third of the A-10 after a non conference slate like they had, they could easily find themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble or in the NIT.
Ken Pomeroy has the Patriots losing every Quadrant A or B game they have left and finishing with a 21-10 record. But if their defense continues playing the way it has, they should be able to steal a few games. With some luck, a double bye in the conference tournament is on the table. From there, the postseason doesn’t seem so far-fetched.