tournament loss has gMu looking ahead


CAPITAL ONE ARENA – Players for George Mason sprawled out inside one of the ancillary locker rooms typically used by visiting WNBA teams or rock show roadies. The group only minutes earlier suffered a season-ending loss in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals. Yet heads were up, chests out.

They expect positive momentum to stay put from one season to the next. Classic outside-the-ropes thinking. Grounded coaches recognize so much changes during the months in between. That change often involves personnel. But, it won’t for the Mason men’s basketball team, in theory. That is why the Patriots see a carryover effect coming.

The season ended Friday and with an emphatic thud. Or rather, a clank, many of them. George Mason surged in recent weeks with thrilling and improbable victories. One thing about buzzer-beater finishes, the kind coach Dave Paulsen’s team pulled off in three consecutive outings late in February: The game must be close. Shooting 2-for-25 on 3-pointers prevents close.

The matchup with fourth-seeded Saint Joseph’s turned one-sided after halftime. Outscored by 18 points over the final 20 minutes, No. 5 seed George Mason lost, 68-49. The loss meant a final losing record. The Patriots (16-17) will next play in November. They can’t wait.

“I’m really excited and optimistic about the future of the program,” Paulsen told the smattering of reporters at his postgame press conference held on the Wizards’ practice court.

There are 351 Div. I programs in men’s college basketball. Plenty will utter a similar sentiment, if not Paulsen’s exact line. Some will actually mean it. Paulsen does with the utmost sincerity. He spent the past season coaching only eight scholarship players. None were seniors or stood taller than 6-foot-8.

Next season will be different and yet familiar. Everyone on the current roster is set to return, plus new bodies are coming in. The current group won six of eight games, including a comeback victory Thursday over Massachusetts before Friday’s defeat.

“You know, truthfully, you’re like, gosh, can we survive this year? I think we survived it and actually in pretty good fashion and gave ourselves some momentum,” Paulsen said. “We’ll go from being young, small and lacking depth to next year we’ll be older… we’ll have more depth. We’ll have more size. We’ll have more competition in practice.”

Leading scorer Otis Livingston and backcourt partner Jaire Grayer become seniors. Two incoming freshmen including 6-foot-5 wing Jordan Miller, from Middleburg, Va., join the fray. Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter and his 260 pounds become eligible. Older, deeper, bigger. That’s a good formula for maintaining momentum especially when paired with continuity.

The force was not with Livingston on Friday afternoon. The 5-foot-11 guard with spiky hair and a quick first step missed all seven of his 3-point attempts against the Hawks. He finished 3-for-13 overall. Some misses occurred during a second-half stretch where Saint Joseph’s offensive drought opened the door for a comeback. Livingston scored eight points, 9.5 below his season average.

Carrying this personal and team result into the offseason could strip away optimism. Livingston sees the big picture.

“(The positive momentum) will carry over,” said the fastest player to reach 1,000 points at George Mason in nearly two decades.

Livingston described the relentless misfires as “frustrating,” but he talked without a trace of regret. The future is bright. “We have a lot to look forward to next season.”

Paulsen’s third season at George Mason ended Friday afternoon. They didn’t match last season’s 20 wins, but the Patriots finished 9-9 in conference play for a second consecutive year.

Quite the achievement considering the roster limitations. Earlier in the week, the coach expressed fear that his squad might run out of gas in the tournament after a strong finish. The tank hit empty Friday, but optimism overflows for the Fairfax program.

“Nothing is guaranteed, but I feel comfortable next year that we’ll have the roster where I want to have the roster in terms of guys who really buy into our culture,” Paulsen said. “Who have experience and size and athleticism and skill level to really compete, I think at a high level in the Atlantic 10.”

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