In his second season Dave Paulsen has led George Mason to first winning record since 2013.
Overlook for a minute the losing streak that reached three games Sunday afternoon as George Mason made the short drive to Foggy Bottom and lost to George Washington. No coach enjoys a late-season slide as the time to recover expires.
In the bigger picture, however, Dave Paulsen’s second year rebuilding project at Mason is, if anything, ahead of schedule.
George Mason is 18-11 overall and for the first time since 2013 will have a winning record. The Patriots are 8-8 in the Atlantic 10, needing to split the final week against Duquesne (home) and VCU (road) to avoid a losing conference record. Mason was 13-39 in its first three trips around the A10.
“I’m pleased in the sense that this group has really worked,” Paulsen said. “You can’t have any expectations of success unless you work. It’s a group that’s embraced how we have to play. We’re not big, have some depth on the perimeter and have done a good job rebounding the basketball for the most part despite not having a lot of size. We’ve done a good job of embracing attacking off the bounce to score or collapse the defense, become more willing passers and the ball has moved better.”
The numbers confirm his declaration. George Mason leapt 158 spots this season to 76th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, producing 1.10 points per possession. The Patriots shot 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws with more accuracy than last season. And, in continuing a trend started last season, have fouled less frequently and taken better care of the basketball. In 2014-15, the last of Paul Hewitt’s four underachieving seasons in Fairfax, the Patriots were 300th or worse in both turnovers and putting opponents on the free throw line.
The team’s rebounding prowess is worthy of a separate story. In fact, the star of that show has already received paragraphs of praise for his remarkable ability to clean the glass.
Entering Sunday’s game, Marquise Moore led the Atlantic 10 in defensive rebounding percentage, snagging 26.5 percent of opponent’s missed shots. He was 13th in the nation in overall rebounding, hauling down 10.5 per game.
He’s 6-foot-2, 208 pounds.
Every other player in the top 50 in the national rebounding race is at least three inches taller. The 12 players he trails in rebounding are 77 inches taller combined, more than a half-foot per man.
About midway through last season, Paulsen realized Moore, who has attempted only 60 3-pointers in four years at Mason, needed room to drive to create baskets for himself and teammates. The Patriots switched to a 4-around-1 offense to open driving lanes. Moore suffered a nasty ankle sprain in a game against Richmond in early February. He never regained the explosive first step last season, but the template was set for the power guard to thrive.
This season, he’s been the Patriots best player, adding a team-high 17.4 points per game to the ridiculous rebounding totals. Moore has made 52 percent of 2-pointers and nearly five free throws per game.
Just as critical, he’s become a better leader.
“He’s brought a motor every day to practice at a much higher level than he did last year and that’s allowed him to have a higher motor in the games,” Paulsen said. “As a better practice player he’s become an elite and consistent game performer.”
Sophomores Otis Livingston II and Jaire Grayer, who were two of Paulsen’s first recruits, have continued on an upward arc. Both have improved their shooting percentages in every area. Livingston II is averaging double figures (14.4 ppg) for the second consecutive season, has improved defensively and is learning from Moore how to run a team. Grayer has hit 46.9 percent of 3-pointers in A10 play and watched his offensive rating vault from 93.3 last season to 106.7.
Senior forward Jalen Jenkins has provided a reliable post presence. And, the rotation includes five freshmen - three on the perimeter and two in the post. So, the future is bright in Fairfax, again. The Patriots’ fan base is rejuvenated and ready to return to the golden era enjoyed under coach Jim Larranaga, who is now at Miami. Of course there was the Final Four run in 2006, but for years before and until Larranaga headed south in 2011, Mason was a regular contender in the often one-bid Colonial and reached the NCAA tournament five times.
They may need a miracle from Mona Mondieu to splash through Pittsburgh and claim the Atlantic 10 title. Regardless the outcome of this year’s conference tournament, better days lie ahead. Paulsen knows what he’s doing.
His last five Bucknell teams had a 61-17 record in the Patriot League. He’s won games playing a traditional two-post lineup yet sees advantages to this style in the Atlantic 10, where rosters are often filled with recruits who were an inch or two shy of playing for a power 5 conference school.
“You play with your strengths,” he said. “The game of basketball is going much more to positionless basketball. If you can play with the spacing around the perimeter it does open up driving line opportunities and post-up opportunities but you have to be able to shoot the 3 well. Is this how we’ll play forever? I don’t know … I’ve always taken the approach let’s find the best guys and put them out there in a way that gives them the best chance for success.”