WASHINGTON — By George, that was one rough opening night.
Which was more painful, George Mason’s 72-71 loss at home to Penn or George Washington wasting a 22-0 first half lead in their defeat to Stony Brook? The Patriots and Colonials will battle twice in Atlantic 10 play, with GW going to Fairfax Jan. 26 and Mason heading to Foggy Bottom Mar. 9.
Meanwhile, D.C. houses two more Division I programs. Both American and Howard are rebuilding — the Eagles are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, while the Bison have a 26-year Big Dance drought. Of the four, George Mason has the best chance of making waves this winter while the other three have hopes … for the moment.
The Patriots enter coach Dave Paulsen’s fourth year at the helm, meaning every player in the program is someone brought to Fairfax by his efforts.
“There’s just a comfort level that the kids have and a comfort level that I have with the kids,” Paulsen said. “What we’re starting to see when is when the players enforce the culture, when the players can help correct some things on the side.”
Mason has improved from 12th to seventh to fifth in the Atlantic 10 over the last three years. This fall, the Patriots return all five starters and every significant bench player from last winter and have been picked to finish fourth in the A-10’s preseason poll. This is a team built to contend.
“We talk a lot about playing two-tempo basketball: being able to push it in transition but also be able to really execute on the offensive end,” Paulsen said.
Leading the returnees is guard Otis Livingston II, a senior named preseason All-Atlantic 10. While his 17 points per game paced the Patriots last winter, Livingston’s coach feels he’s only scratched the surface.
“We really challenged Otis to become a complete point guard in the truest sense,” said Paulsen. “To assert himself more defensively and pressure the ball … and continue to be aggressive scoring the basketball.”
Livingston will have plenty of options at his disposal. Jaire Grayer led the team in threes while the 6-foot-5 guard was also the best player on the boards. Six-foot-seven Minnesota mountain man Goanar Mar looks to build off what was a productive freshman season in the post.
“I do think we’ll have better balance. We pretty much lived and died on the perimeter last year and I think we’ll be able to throw the ball inside and get some easy buckets in there as well,” said Paulsen.
That they’re picked fourth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll is nice, but the coach expects a long winter with many twists and turns.
“There’s always a team that does very well and always a team that doesn’t perform as well as expected, but there’s no easy night,” Paulsen said of the conference.
The schedule has Mason playing defending A-10 regular season champ Rhode Island once (on the road) and tournament winner Davidson at home
Maurice Joseph’s team was picked to finish 13th in the conference after losing its top three scorers off last year’s 15-18 team. Stepping into the vacuum of the graduating Yuta Watanabe and Patrick Steeves plus the South Carolina-bound Jair Bolden is 6-foot-8 forward Arnaldo Toro. The junior from Puerto Rico led the Colonials in rebounding last winter and will be expected be the primary post presence moving forward.
Getting him the ball will be Baltimore product Terry Nolan Jr. The preseason Atlantic 10-All Defensive Team guard was fifth in the conference in steals as a freshman. The season begins with a bang as GW faces Top 25 teams Virginia and Michigan in November.
The Eagles were extremely young last year, and it showed in a 6-24 finish (3-15 Patriot League). But after taking those lumps, coach Mike Brennan’s team returns a nucleus of Sa’eed Nelson (preseason Patriot League Player of the Year), senior Larry Motuzis (15 points per game while leading the team in threes) and sophomore Sam Iorio (15 points per game while leading the team in rebounding).
Despite the experience, the Eagles are picked seventh in the conference, with everybody chasing Lehigh and Bucknell. Games to watch include trips to George Mason (Nov. 9) and George Washington (Dec. 27).
Forgive me for being wary about the Bison. The program was THIS CLOSE to breaking through two years ago with James Daniel leading the nation in scoring and his teammates leading the country in untimely injuries. Kevin Nickelberry has rebuilt the roster and has HU picked to finish fourth in the MEAC (keep in mind they have one winning conference record since 2002) and once again the Bison boast a high-powered backcourt.
Preseason MEAC Player of the Year RJ Cole looks to build on one incredible freshman season (his 24 points per game ranked seventh nationally) while junior Charles Williams (20 points per game last winter) can fill it up as well. Upper Marlboro, Md. native Zion Cousins led the Bison with 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman. If he can develop a better offensive game, Howard might just finally find a way to turn from pretender to contender.
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