Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to take a good hard look at the George Mason Patriots.
After posting their 12th consecutive win by way of a 20-point evisceration of the second-place VCU Rams in Richmond, the Patriots now hold the longest winning streak in the program’s history and the longest current win streak in D-1. It certainly seems like the 2006 top guns from the Colonial Athletic Association are back. And they might be even better than ever before.
Cast your memory back to that glorious season of 2006 and you’ll find a team that averaged 1.10 points per possession according to Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free stats. That was a heck of an output, but it only barely ranked in the top 50 among D-1 teams. This season, these more refined Pats have upped that total to 1.14, good for 21st in the nation.
Part of the reason for the improvement? The Patriots are connecting from long range, hitting just over 40 percent of their 3-pointers. That is a massive improvement from that Final Four team (35.6 percent) and has made Jim Larranaga’s offense all the more versatile.
Masons is not a “live by the 3, die by the 3” flash in the pan though. The Pats may stroke over 40 percent from deep, but they don’t rely on the arc to generate all their offense. Far from it. Mason actually scores 53.2 percent of its points inside the arc. That’s important come tourney time. Over the grind of the three-week event you’re bound to face an off-shooting night. Likewise teams that rely on getting to the free-throw line may not get the whistles they need from the refs. The Patriots’ scoring balance is going to be a key as they move forward this season and will make them a dangerous opponent.
Another part of that offensive versatility is their multitude of offensive contributors. If you do a little rounding to include Andre Cornelius (9.8 points per game), Mason features four different players averaging in double figures. Luke Hancock, Ryan Pearson, super-stud Cam Long, put the ball in any of their hands with the shot clock winding down and you’ve got to feel good about your chances to come away with points. Particularly since they’re going to take care of the rock. Mason only averages 11 turnovers per game. Or, if you prefer the tempo-free variety, they give up the orange on just 16.9 percent of their possessions. That’s the 14th best mark of 345 D-1 teams.
But will these Patriots get a chance to even show off this refined offense in the NCAA Tournament and challenge their predecessors for ultimate postseason glory? That’s a very different question.
Selection Sunday can be one of the most terrifying days of the season if you’re a mid-major power and you failed to win your conference tournament. The easiest way for Mason to make the NCAAs is to lock up that CAA tourney crown. But even aside from that it seems their chances are fairly solid.
As of Feb. 14, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has both the Patriots and Old Dominion in the field. That bodes well for Mason should they fall in the conference tournament, as they did in 2006. Head to head, the Patriots’ profile compares very favorably to the Monarchs. Particularly if Larranaga and crew can win out the regular season.
Right now the Patriots’ RPI sits at a very attractive 22, while the Monarchs are at 31. What Mason has working against them is that they lack a big non-conference win, while ODU has a neutral-site win against Xavier, RPI 19. Mason’s best non-con victory? Harvard, RPI 48. You don’t usually get to the tournament by beating a team from the Ivy League, either.
That makes this weekend’s BracketBuster game against Northern Iowa a must-have win. The Panthers won’t add to the Pats’ “big win” total, not with an RPI of 74 anyway, but it could mitigate the effects of a potential ODU victory over Cleveland State (RPI 39).
The Patriots are still in great standing, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for Mason to be left out of the NCAA field if they slip down the stretch. Just ask Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Conference. That squad has missed the field twice in the past 15 seasons despite RPI figures of 34 and 21.
Working in Mason’s favor? The tournament’s expansion to 68 teams. And that extra cushion is very good news for college hoops fans at large, because this club could be a lot of fun to watch in March.
Mike Hume may be emailed at [email protected]