Wednesday night's matchup at Rose Hill Gym has been described by some as the best, if not only, chance for either of the two teams taking the court in the Bronx to pick up a win in Atlantic 10 play.
In one corner, you have the home team in Fordham, losers of six straight after a 7-4 start, their latest setback being a 70-48 defeat at the hands of reigning conference champion Saint Louis after opening league play with solid efforts against Duquesne and Richmond that resulted in near-misses. Despite the outstanding play of freshman guard Jon Severe and leadership of senior floor general Branden Frazier, the Rams have appeared to be outplayed through most of their recent contests, and head coach Tom Pecora is looking for an answer to stop the bleeding.
On the other bench is George Mason, the A-10 newcomer who comes back to New York at 7-11 after a 4-0 start. Winless in five conference games, the Patriots suffered their first loss of the season in the Empire State when they were soundly defeated by an Iona team who opened their November 23rd contest on a 34-5 run, a spurt that has become a mere microcosm of how far the wheels have come off the Mason wagon. Only two players (guards Bryon Allen and Sherrod Wright) are double-figure scorers for head coach Paul Hewitt in a season where all five starters returned from a team that nearly won the CBI last season before departing the Colonial Athletic Association.
Adding to the subplots already prevalent is the fact that Pecora is no stranger to George Mason, having faced the Patriots and former coach Jim Larranaga numerous times while at the helm of Hofstra, who was notoriously snubbed of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid in 2006 despite two wins against George Mason; who, of course, ended up reaching the Final Four after a win in the CAA Tournament that featured Tony Skinn's low blow to Hofstra guard Loren Stokes. This is Pecora's first interaction with the Patriots since January 19, 2010, an affair in Hempstead that ended in a 90-72 defeat that friend of the site and Hofstra columnist/savant Jerry Beach refers to as the "Jaime ran up the score" game.
Nonetheless, it is Fordham entertaining George Mason, and to continue our pregame tradition, we welcome Alan Kelly, a George Mason alumnus and contributor to MasonHoops.com, to answer some questions about the Patriots as they invade Rose Hill with a long-awaited conference victory in sight:
Jaden Daly: In your opinion, what has been the biggest reason for George Mason's collapse after starting 4-0?
Alan Kelly: I don’t think collapse is the right word for what happened. Those four wins were more about the poor level of competition that Mason faced than they were about the Patriots being good. Mason found a way to win those games despite, for the most part, playing some pretty bad basketball. That 4-0 mark was pretty hollow, and Mason fans knew it. The only good team out of the four (Northern Iowa) was still settling their roster into new roles, and got almost no production from anyone except their top four players. Once Seth Tuttle fouled out, UNI couldn’t get stops or rebounds, and it was game over. The Panthers have bounced back from their slow start to the year, and could very well beat the Patriots if the game were played over again now.
JD: After losing Jonathan Arledge and seeing Erik Copes struggle, Paul Hewitt has been challenged to find a true big man. Against a smaller Fordham team, will the lack of an inside presence provide a better matchup?
AK: Mason’s frontcourt is definitely their single biggest challenge this season. Red-shirt freshman Jalen Jenkins has emerged as our best post player since Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison graduated, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of help. The loss of Arledge cannot be understated, and is probably the single biggest reason Mason seems to be regressing from last season. But the problem is bigger than just Arledge. Johnny Williams has mixed flashes of sheer brilliance with more inconsistency than you would hope to see from a fifth-year senior. Marko Gujanicic started the year strong, but has faded, likely due to an injury he apparently suffered a few weeks ago. Erik Copes has finally shown some productivity recently after being limited for the previous 18 months by a hip injury, but he’s still nowhere near the promise he showed as a top-60 recruit out of high school.
Matching up with a smaller roster like Fordham will help the Patriots some, but unforced errors like missed layups/dunks and an inability to hold onto rebounds don’t depend on the level of competition. It will be good news for the guards, who will have a better chance of getting to the rim, and for the defense, since they usually switch on every screen, which regularly leads to terrible mismatches in the post.
JD: Six of the Patriots' 11 losses have come by five points or less, with each one seemingly more excruciating than the last. Is the inability to close out close games attributed more so to Hewitt and his staff, the youth on the roster, or a combination of both? If the struggles continue, is Hewitt the long-term answer?
AK: I really can’t accept youth or inexperience as an excuse when George Mason began the season returning all five starters, and with two fifth-year players, three fourth-year players, and three third-year players on the roster. The experience should have been there for a successful season. Instead, we now have two freshmen in the starting lineup, not just because they deserved to be there, but because other players weren’t getting the job done. There is plenty of blame to go around. I don’t know exactly where the problem lies, and I assume it’s a combination of factors. Perhaps every single coach and player on the team has the same flaws, and so they’re unable to compensate for each others’ weaknesses. It’s not just a communication/coaching problem, because players seem to recognize what they did wrong after the fact, yet the same mental lapses recur. Hewitt has been accused of poor preparation, but Mason has actually looked very well prepared recently. In game adjustments seem to be the weakness right now, but without sitting in the huddle, I don’t know whether that’s a coaching problem, or an execution problem, or both.
Ultimately, the coach can’t go out there and inbound the ball, or defend the paint, or lead by example on the floor. The players have to execute. But one can’t fire players, so coaches get held accountable for their portion of any problems, and, likely, for things that were beyond their control, as well. If he can’t right the ship soon, Paul Hewitt’s seat will get even warmer, but the funny thing about Hewitt’s future is that the players he himself has brought into the program all seem to be working out. Many fans are unwilling to forgive him for failing to succeed with the players he inherited, and that’s a legitimate failing, but if he’s able to milk something out of his own recruits and succeed with them, there’s still a chance he sticks around and ultimately succeeds in two or three years. Of course, if he keeps losing in the mean time, it may be hard for the administration to justify giving him enough time to prove that theory.
JD: Are there any positives to take away from the first four Atlantic 10 games? Also, how much harder was the adjustment from the CAA than most fans and media may realize?
AK: Individually, Jalen Jenkins is one huge positive, and all four of the underclassmen have played very well so far. Marquise Moore handled VCU’s havoc defense better than any other Paul Hewitt point guard has. As a team, while Mason hasn’t won any of the four games, they haven’t been blown out, either. They’ve proven that they have the talent to hang with the top teams like VCU and UMass, now they just have to keep focused, pay attention to fundamental details, and make enough in-game adjustments to close the deal.
The major difference I see in the adjustment from the CAA to the A-10 is that you have to bring your ‘A’ game every single night. There are no games off. But I don’t think that’s even related to Mason’s struggles at this point. The Patriots have been repeating the same kinds of mental lapses and fundamental mistakes that were made last year in the CAA. Only now, instead of fattening up their win-loss record with empty wins against the bottom 75% of a bad league, they’re playing a higher level of competition, and are at legitimate risk of losing 20 games. As strange as it may sound given our record, the adjustment has been easier than I expected. The team (coaches and players) have had plenty of opportunities, they just haven’t executed on them.
JD: With the conference schedule not getting any easier, is it fair to say that Wednesday's game might be the only chance for both schools to pick up an A-10 win? What are the keys to victory for George Mason in this matchup?
AK: That’s a good question. Mason has six players from the New York metro area. Historically, Mason’s New York area players usually show up in a big way when they play in the Big Apple, and long losing streaks are not something the program typically endures. But it’s still a road matchup, and I see the game as a coin flip. Mason’s best chance for a win will probably be at home against Duquesne on March 8, but I don’t really believe the Patriots are going to go 0-16 or 1-15. This team is too good not to luck into a couple of wins somewhere along the way.
In no particular order, I see several keys for Mason to win:
- Get back to defending better. Mason is allowing 78.5 points per game in their first four league games, and while they have an overall defensive efficiency of 99.4 overall, it has fallen to 109.2 in conference play, according to KenPom.
- Get to the line early and often, and make their free throws. When Mason has been able to do this, they have generally gotten favorable results. In conference play, however, they are last in the league in free throw rate, per KenPom.
- Keep composure no matter what happens. This applies on both the offensive and defensive ends, especially in late game situations. The players have to stay within themselves and within the offense, rather than panicking and playing what I like to call “hero ball.” Trust each other, make smart passes, and take good shots, rather than going 1-on-1 or 1-on-5 and taking the first shot that comes along.
- Limit turnovers, especially in the last 2-3 minutes. This is self-explanatory.
- Find Jenkins. He’s as strong as an ox, and I don’t think the Rams don’t have the personnel to contain him. If they double-team him, then run some inside-out plays to guards for open jump shots.