Saturday, December 20, 2014

Iona/George Mason Preview

Sophomore Jalen Jenkins, whose 75-footer beat Manhattan three weeks ago, hopes for similar flair for dramatic against Iona. (Photo courtesy of George Mason University)

The last time George Mason hosted a team from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, this happened: (Video courtesy of CBS Sports' Matt Norlander)

Their next opponent, although from the same league as Manhattan, is a completely different animal, though.

At 6-3 on the year, Iona is once again an offensive juggernaut under Tim Cluess, relying on contributions from all-MAAC honorees David Laury and A.J. English to lead a group also bolstered by Schadrac Casimir and Isaiah Williams. However, George Mason, who hosts the Gaels tonight at the Patriot Center, is a complete opposite at 3-6, responding from their dramatic win over the Jaspers with losses to Old Dominion and Northern Iowa before their 33-point win over Division II Catawba College.

Sharpshooter Patrick Holloway and sophomore Marquise Moore pace the backcourt for Paul Hewitt's Patriots, who have gotten a major boost up front with junior college transfer Shevon Thompson joining Manhattan hero Jalen Jenkins to average a double-double per contest. However, with Erik Copes having departed the team earlier in the week, George Mason's frontcourt depth, which is something the Patriots needed to focus on in defending Laury and Williams, takes somewhat of a hit.

The last time these two teams squared off against one another, Iona jumped on the accelerator and never looked back, opening their rout of George Mason last November at the Hynes Center on a 34-5 run. That game was one of the many things we spoke to our favorite Patriots expert, Alan Kelly of, about in his second pregame Q&A session with us this season. Alan also broke down the George Mason/Manhattan matchup three weeks ago before bedlam ensued in Fairfax, and this is what he offered in regard to the 2006 Cinderella meeting the maroon and gold attack from New Rochelle:

Jaden Daly: What has been the biggest difference in how George Mason has played since returning from Puerto Rico?

Alan Kelly: The main difference I've seen is a more consistent level of play being sustained throughout (most of) each game. The play is still uneven at times, and there are still defensive and offensive lapses, but the lapses are usually shorter, limited to just a few possessions in a row, rather than snowballing for long periods of the game. That change probably starts with sophomore point guard Marquise Moore, who has shaken off a very rough start to average 16 points in the last four games, while increasing his steals and assists and decreasing his turnovers. George Mason has also gotten some big individual games from frontcourt players like Jalen Jenkins (24 points versus Manhattan) and Shevon Thompson (29 points against D-II Catawba). Early in the season, the offense was Patrick Holloway or bust, and that wasn't sustainable. Now that more players are getting involved in the scoring, fans just have to hope that all the pieces will start clicking on the same night. We saw some of that on Wednesday against Catawba, with six players in double figures, but that was to be expected against a Division II foe.

JD: On that note, how much has changed from last year's George Mason team that Iona opened on a 34-5 run against last year?

AK: The two big changes are a significant loss of backcourt offensive firepower, and a significant infusion of height and length, especially to the frontcourt. Mason lost close to half of their scoring from last season with the graduation of 1,500-point scorer Sherrod Wright and 1,000-point scorer Bryon Allen. Paul Hewitt has gone from a guard laden team to one that needs to score lots of points in the paint in order to win, and this has forced him to move away from his preferred 4-out, 1-in offense to an offense that uses two post players more often. The newcomers in the frontcourt, 6-11 junior college transfer Shevon Thompson and 6-10 freshman Trey Porter, have been feast or famine for the Patriots offensively. Thompson has scored over 20 points twice in the last six games, but also had an 0-8 goose egg against Manhattan. The Patriots have also increased their size in the backcourt with the addition of 6-6 freshman guard Isaiah Jackson and with significantly increased playing time for 6-6 senior wing Vaughn Gray.

JD: How much does the mid-season departure of Erik Copes affect the Patriots' defense of David Laury?

AK: It probably doesn't have a big impact in Mason's ability to defend Laury, because Copes hadn't proven himself to be a reliable contributor this season. There were a few games where he provided great energy on the defensive end of the floor, but their were also games where he picked up two quick fouls and went right back to the bench (a problem that plagued him throughout his career at Mason). The main defensive change will be that 6-10 freshman center Trey Porter will see increased playing time. While Shevon Thompson has entrenched himself as the starting center by averaging 11.4 points and 10.6 rebounds, Porter has been the more consistent defender and his role has been expanding. The freshman is second on the team in blocks despite averaging less than 14 minutes per game. Sophomore forward Jalen Jenkins, who leads the team in blocks, will continue to be another important piece of the defense, and junior forward Marko Gujanicic may also see increased time. Junior forward Julian Royal, another newcomer, will miss the game (and possibly the rest of the season) after undergoing surgery on his hand.

JD: Besides the possible shootout between Patrick Holloway and Schadrac Casimir, what other matchups are worth watching?

AK: The big one for me is Shevon Thompson versus the Iona frontcourt. The junior has become a rebounding machine in his first season at Mason, using his size and height to abuse smaller or less-skilled interior players. He had 19 rebounds against New Mexico last month, and easily collected 10 in reduced minutes against Catawba on Wednesday night. But he's still adjusting to Division I basketball, so it will be a good test to see how well he performs against a taller, heavier roster like Iona. If he can't limit Iona's second chance opportunities, it could be a long night for the Patriots.

JD: Finally, what are the keys to victory against Iona's offensive juggernaut?

AK: I'm not sure how to diagnose Mason's defense anymore. It is what it is. It's not terrible, but it's not good, either, and they will give up too many open looks around the perimeter. Everyone knows Iona's going to score. The big question is whether Mason's offense can keep pace. The Patriots have yet to break 70 points on the season against D-I competition, but Iona's defense gives up almost 79 per game. The first key is that Mason has to start making their free throws. They're shooting 63.8% for the season from the charity stripe, and those are points they can't afford to give away. Second, the Patriots need to keep their composure on offense. They have a tendency to tense up in high-pressure situations and get away from what's working. They can't let Iona's fast pace pressure them into rushing bad shots, and they can't afford to have lengthy scoring droughts. Lastly, they need to find a way to get Patrick Holloway going. He's been blanketed on the perimeter quite effectively in recent games, and while he's been able to drive around that coverage for mid-range shots, those looks haven't been falling for him. 

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