Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fordham/George Mason Preview

Eric Paschall and Fordham seek third win in last four games when Rams travel to George Mason. (Photo courtesy of The Journal News)

Over three months into the year, it seems that the breakthrough Tom Pecora was hoping to see has finally made its way into the cracks of the Fordham foundation.

Once winless through their first nine games to start the conference season, the Rams have battled back with a pair of A-10 victories at Rose Hill Gym in their last three contests, disposing of Saint Louis and Saint Joseph's in a nine-day span, with another winnable game awaiting Fordham on the road tonight, against George Mason at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia.

Under Pecora, the Rams have only won on the road once in league play, against St. Bonaventure two years ago in what was the final game for Chris Gaston in a Fordham uniform, but this team, led by freshman forwards Eric Paschall and Christian Sengfelder, has what it takes to pull off what would be a rare road victory. George Mason enters at 8-16 on the season and 3-9 in league games, and the Patriots are a shell of their former selves, a once-Cinderella Final Four participant that has fallen on hard times as head coach Paul Hewitt shepherds a young team through their second year in the A-10.

Paced by the double-double average of Shevon Thompson and three-point shooting of Patrick Holloway, George Mason has two proven scorers that can go a long way in guiding Hewitt's offense. After that, however, the ground becomes shakier. Guards Marquise Moore, a former Hofstra commit, and one-time Christ the King standout Corey Edwards are; as is sophomore Jalen Jenkins, competent role players, but their attempts to emerge as trusted options to lead the way are still a work in progress.

Fordham won both matchups against George Mason last season, the first being a 76-70 win over the Patriots on January 22 at Rose Hill Gym before a 70-67 victory in the preliminary round of the Atlantic 10 tournament last March, the first two meetings with the Patriots for Tom Pecora since January 19, 2010, when his Hofstra team was soundly defeated by Jim Larranaga's George Mason squad in a contest that will forever be known, at least to friend of the site Jerry Beach, as the "Jaime ran up the score" game.

That night in Hempstead is ancient history, as is last season, but tonight brings the return of our other good friend, Alan Kelly of MasonHoops.com. Just as he did for the Patriots' two other skirmishes against local outfits in Manhattan and Iona, Alan was gracious enough to donate some of his time to help us get filled in on what George Mason has done since we last checked in on them in mid-December:

Jaden Daly: Catch us up to speed on the Patriots. What have they done, or not done, since the upset win over Iona in December?

Alan Kelly: George Mason seemed to turn a bit of a corner in late November and early December, and the win over Iona was the second win in what would be a streak of four wins in five games (with the only loss coming at then #18 Oklahoma). But after their initial Atlantic 10 opening win over La Salle on January 3, the same old problems that plagued the team early in the year returned: critical lapses on perimeter defense, turnovers, incorrect offensive positioning, lengthy scoring droughts, lack of fundamentals, mental miscues in high pressure situations, and inability to close out the last minute of ballgames. The Patriots lost nine of their next ten games, before their overtime victory over Richmond on Saturday in Fairfax.

Some of the problems can undoubtedly be tied to health and ever-shifting rotations. Senior center Erik Copes left the team after the fall semester. Marquise Moore injured his ankle against Wright State on December 23, which led to him missing two games and being limited in several others. Julian Royal has been in and out of the lineup while recovering from an offseason hand injury that required followup surgery in November. Marko Gujanicic missed three games with a concussion. Patrick Holloway missed three games with a blood infection, and wasn't himself for a couple weeks before that. But the bottom line is that this year's Patriots are a very limited offensive team, and they don't have much of a margin for error, either in game plan and preparation, or in execution on the court. 

JD: Aside from Shevon Thompson and Patrick Holloway, is there a trusted offensive option that can be an integral piece to win? It seems like Jalen Jenkins might be one, but his stats seem to indicate he hasn't made the progress some would have expected.

AK: Sophomore point guard Marquise Moore is the third cog to the Mason offense alongside Thompson and Holloway. When he's full strength, not only is he a capable floor general, but his ability to drive the lane for layups and draw fouls is an asset and he's capable of scoring 20 points on any given night. He's also been adding a mid-range jumper that's as ugly as any jump shot you've seen, but quite effective.

Jalen Jenkins should be in this same discussion, but he had been very foul prone and very inconsistent in his sophomore season. You don't have to look any farther than his point totals from the last five games to see the problem: 11, 15, 1, 6, and 15 points. When he stays out of foul trouble, and his teammates are able get him the ball, he can be an effective scoring option. On Saturday, Shevon Thompson had a beautiful pass out of a double-team to a wide open Jenkins for the easy dunk. 

Senior point guard Corey Edwards has become the starting option as a shooting guard, primarily because he's the only truly reliable three point shooter besides Holloway. He's scored in double figures in five of his last nine games.

JD: With that said, do you expect tonight's effort to be centered more on defense, and limiting Fordham inside?

AK: Defense really is the key to Mason's chances this season. There's a pretty fixed ceiling on how many points they can score, so they have to hold teams to the low 60s if they're going to win. And defensively, the Patriots are a reasonably solid, average squad. They have the height and size to be disruptive in the paint, with Thompson, Jenkins, and freshman Trey Porter all capable of blocking shots.

The real inconsistencies for the Patriots have been around the perimeter. When they aggressively defend the three-point arc, they force bad shots and turnovers, but they have a history of perimeter breakdowns, especially late in games and after broken plays. They did an outstanding job against Davidson's shooters the first time around and completely frustrated the Wildcats guards, but the second time around last week, it seemed like they let their guard down and they got torched. Defense was a point of emphasis against Richmond (Kendall Anthony finished without a made three-pointer) and I'm sure it will continue to be one. 

JD: This group has been in their share of close games in the conference season, with only three wins to show for it. With four difficult games leading into the Atlantic 10 tournament, how much more important does this game become, and can the Patriots use this as a springboard to an upset or two before they arrive in Brooklyn?

AK: One hallmark of the Paul Hewitt era has been that almost nothing is ever a springboard for a long streak, either positively or negatively, and thus predictions about anything long term are fruitless. His teams are usually pretty good at shaking off a loss, having a short memory, and moving on to the next one, but on the other hand, he has never managed to build any lengthy winning momentum, either. The most important consideration right now is whether the Patriots can coax enough wins from their regular season slate to avoid the dreaded opening night round on Wednesday in Brooklyn. I think they will continue to play hard, and an upset wouldn't shock me, but I don't know that those games have much relevance to what will happen in Brooklyn. Momentum doesn't seem to exist with this team.

JD: At this moment, has Fordham's recent success and indications of a possible turnaround done enough to justify bringing Tom Pecora back for a sixth year?

AK: I haven't followed Fordham closely enough to offer much of an opinion. I know Pecora has a very young roster, and if he's able to coax a spark out of them over the next month, then he probably deserves one more year with the same roster to see what he can do. But I also don't think anyone is going to be surprised if a coach 60 games under .500 is shown the door.

JD: Finally, we asked this earlier in the season, but feel there may be more of a concrete answer: What does Paul Hewitt need to do to survive the offseason?

AK: Sitting at 8-16 on the season and 3-9 in the league, I don't believe there is anything Hewitt can do, short of hanging another Final Four banner in the Patriot Center. None of the goals I suggested when we talked in November have been achieved, and he's now guaranteed of a second consecutive losing regular season, with a very real shot at 20 losses. A six game winning streak would be a good place to start, and winning the A10 tournament in Brooklyn would markedly change the conversation, but I just don't see it happening. 

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