George Mason Men’s Basketball Preview: Patriots prepare to swim against the A-10 tide

George Mason coach Kim English gestures during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in College Park, Md. George Mason won 71-66. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Atlantic 10 Conference not only has 15 schools in its membership, but of those basketball programs, 10 have advanced to the NCAA Tournament Final Four (albeit some before they joined the league or even before the A-10 began play in 1976).

Meanwhile, the schools that don’t have regional banners hanging in their arenas can boast of bracket-breaking upsets (Richmond, Davidson, Rhode Island). And the newest addition of Loyola Chicago not only boasts recent success, but everyone’s favorite 103-year-old nun in Sister Jean.

These are the rough waters George Mason has been trying to swim in for the last decade.

The Patriots enter their 10th season in the A-10 still looking for its first trip to a Saturday semifinal. Last year’s team started strong with a 11-7 record and 4-1 in conference play entering February but lost nine of 12 to end the season.

Head coach Kim English returns for his second year at the helm much wiser than when he took over the program in 2021.

“Coaching games now having just one season under my belt, it just feels a lot different-and obviously I’m still learning,” English said. “But there were things … obviously in games everything up until that point was a philosophy. Right now I have some anecdotal occurrences that have happened to me.”

Last year’s team made noise in November with a victory at formally No. 20 Maryland, only to lose at James Madison (67-64) two nights later. That defeat to the Dukes became the rule instead of the exception for the Patriots.

“We lost seven games by one possession. Those losses are etched in my brain forever,” English said. “I think that going through that with the group — I think it really helps growth. You can reach back to those days and think why we didn’t execute, why we didn’t get the job done, and just be more encouraged to get it done in the future.”

While there was quite a bit of roster turnover when he took over the program (eight newcomers), one of English’s causes for confidence this fall is that the Patriots return four of their top six scorers from last winter.

“Retention’s more important that recruiting to me,” English said. “We’ll always get good players but the retention of those players in today’s landscape is really important.”

One of last season’s pleasant surprises was the emergence of big man Josh Oduro. The senior from Gainesville, Virginia, averaged 18 points with 8 rebounds last winter and was a Preseason All-Atlantic Ten selection this fall.

“It’s one thing to go from 10 points a game — a good role player — to the leading scorer in the A-10,” English said. “But now he’s going to be game-planned against from game one. He’ll be double-teamed every night. So how does he continue to sustain and evolve his game and continue to be the dominant force, the dominant player that he is?”

Also returning are guards DeVon Cooper (12 points per game while shooting 41% from 3-point territory) and Davonte Gaines (10 points plus a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game), while Mason’s added more than a few players who can contribute, from freshman guard Justyn Fernandez out of IMG Academy to Tennessee transfer Victor Bailey Jr. (the senior averaged 11 points per game for the Volunteers as a sophomore) and ex-Virginia Tech forward Ginika Ojiako (who appeared in 20 games last winter for the ACC Tournament Champions).

“We added some depth,” English said. “Now we really get to hunker down and hopefully play harder for less minutes and not try to conserve energy because you’re having to play so many minutes. I think we have an opportunity to do a lot of things this season with the increase in our depth.”

Mason was picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic 10 Preseason Poll. And they will waste no time preparing for what promises to be another challenging winter season in the Atlantic Ten.

“We have the second or third toughest non-conference strength of schedule in the A-10,” English said. “[Preseason No. 15] Auburn is a really good team, Longwood was an NCAA Tournament team [in 2022], Tulane is picked to finish top four of their league, possibly Belmont, possibly Wyoming.”

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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