GMU, Gw enter postseason tourney intertwined
BY BEN STANDIG | MARCH 7, 2018
Similarities between this season’s George Washington and George Mason men’s basketball teams extend beyond both schools named for founding fathers or membership in the Atlantic 10 conference. Both squads are trending up entering this week’s conference tournament at Capital One Arena, where the Patriots once stunned the world in a 2006 Final Four run. The reasons for their respective surges? Their young kids are growing up.
Both sides kept expectations in check entering the 2017-18 campaign despite coming off 20-win seasons. Both sides lived up to that low bar early in conference play. George Mason, sporting scant depth, limited size and no seniors on the roster, ended January with a 3-6 A-10 record following a 16-point home loss to St. Bonaventure.
Fans put their focus on next season. This was a bridge year. Everyone returns for 2018-19, notably impact guards Otis Livingston and Jaire Grayer. Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter becomes eligible in the fall. Better days on the horizon, just you wait.
Turned out the horizon was within arm’s reach.
The Patriots loved February. They went 6-2 including back-to-back-to back wins all decided at the buzzer on shots by sophomore Ian Boyd, one of six underclassmen in the rotation. Despite losing the regular-season finale at Richmond on March 3, George Mason (15-16, 9-9) enters the tournament as the No. 5 seed. The Patriots open tournament play Thursday at 2:30 p.m. against Massachusetts.
During an interview with The Sports Capitol, Dave Paulsen, a 53-year-old head coach with a perpetually hoarse voice, noted recent defensive growth. Led by Livingston (19.8 points per game), George Mason ranked among the top four in the league in scoring (75.2) and 3-point field goal percentage (35.8).
Paulsen knew he had the goods with his two lead guards. He knew nobody wearing green and gold stood taller than 6-foot-8. Lack of height he could handle. But, it took more than a minute to get his freshmen over the hump.
“The biggest thing freshmen struggle with is defense,” Paulsen said. “Second thing is taking care of the basketball. The third thing is shot selection. Those are big deals. The fourth thing freshmen struggle with is how long and grueling and physically taxing the season is. My only concern is that hopefully we have enough gas left in the tank here for the conference tournament. Not only are we young, but we’re thin.”
Paulsen appreciates the lack of lengthy bus trips required to attend this year’s conference tournament for the Fairfax program. Otherwise he downplayed the potential home-court help — though Patriots fans should be in the building where George Mason won two games to reach the 2006 Final Four under former coach Jim Larranaga.
“It ended up OK,” Paulsen cracked.
But Paulsen downplayed the nostalgia angle.
“Hopefully the Karma will works its way and helps us hit some jump shots,” Paulsen said. “But it would certainly be fine with me if any of those dudes from the 2006 team wanted to show up. We can find them a uniform.”
George Washington coach Maurice Joseph views the opportunity to play in D.C. as “a tremendous advantage.”
The Colonials will sleep in their own beds this week. They play a game each year in Chinatown during the BB&T Classic, including December’s win over Temple. That victory served as the season highlight until a recent surge, one that gives GW hope entering the tournament.
Joseph started with more known commodities than Paulsen. Weeks back, Joseph called senior forward Yuta Watanabe the best two-way player in the conference. The Japanese import with 3-and-D skills was named Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year this week just days after scoring a career-high 31 points against Fordham. A pair of frontcourt grad transfers provided experience, the kind Joseph’s core guards lacked.
The top four backcourt options are underclassmen with three in their first year. Young players at this level are often inconsistent. The inexperienced Colonials were no exception, though Terry Nolan Jr. flashed a scoring touch early. Once Justin Mazzulla and Maceo Jack found a rhythm and more minutes, the Colonials took off in numerous ways.
George Washington (14-17, 7-11) won four of five games – all by at least 11 points – before dropping its regular season finale at Dayton on Saturday. The No. 11 seed Colonials beat Fordham, 78-72, on Wednesday. They play No. 6 Saint Louis on Thursday night at 8:30.
“We definitely have some momentum,” Joseph told The Sports Capitol. “I think our playing with better pace has been really good for us. Getting us easier opportunities in transition, which has allowed us to score better overall.”
Mazzulla’s insertion into the starting lineup helped speed up the offense. The Colonials began initiating offense with 27, 28 seconds on the shot clock rather than 20 or 21.
“That’s made a significant difference in just our overall pace and production,” Joseph said.
Mazzulla had 10 assists in the 103-77 rout over Richmond, which capped a recent three-game winning streak.
Jack, a sharp 6-foot-5 guard, sank 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers. They both provide hope for next season without Watanabe. This season they gave Joseph something the coach lacked earlier in the season: Options.
“In order to play with some pace, you need some depth and you need guys comfortable playing at that speed,” Joseph said. “Mazzulla and Maceo being freshmen and still learning the ropes, it took them a while to get them where we wanted them to be. Once they finally got there, we were able to play the style that we thought would be best for this team.”
Unless either team wins out – that would mean five victories for the Colonials, four for the Patriots — their seasons will end this week. Weeks ago thoughts were big picture. That their freshmen eventually found a rhythm puts George Mason and George Washington in the mindset entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament of ‘Why not us?’ We’ve seen crazier happen in this building before.
Photo courtesy George Washington University