George Mason enters the 2020-21 college basketball season with some optimism for their season and how they can compete in the Atlantic 10 conference.
The Patriots are one of a handful of teams in the mid-major league that brings back a ton of experience on their roster. All of their starters are returning along with other contributors. And while some players left this offseason, none were notable figures last year.
For George Mason and their head coach Dave Paulsen, this will be an important year. Paulsen is entering his sixth season at the helm of the program. Through his first five seasons, only once has the team had a 20-win season under normal scheduling constraints.
This year will be the second time in his tenure that he essentially returns everyone on his roster. A few years ago he branded his team with a 'two-year season' when the program did not have a senior on their roster. The growth was two extra conference wins and the same finish in the standings. They'll have a bigger window of opportunity to improve this year (17–15, 5–13 A-10) when they finished 12th.
Now the Atlantic 10 conference is getting better as a whole this season, even with Dayton taking a step back from last year's run. The Patriots should be very optimistic about their odds as the season begins.
Here are some questions surrounding the team as they begin a new season.
Is the Patriots experience, the right experience?
Even with the loss of Justin Kier to the transfer portal, the Patriots are an experienced bunch entering the new season. All six of their top contributors from last season are returning. Four are upperclassmen and two of which were starters each of the past two seasons.
In total, players who accounted for 88% of their points, 81% of their rebounds and 90% of their assists are all back. Any head coach would be thrilled with that amount of retention.
Any skepticism is the lack of recent success that George Mason has with these players. The past two seasons saw the Patriots boast a combined 35-30 record with both seasons around the .500 mark. All indications will be the team will improve given they have another year to work together. That will only take them so far because it's not like the talent on the team took a step forward.
Yet, at the same time experience is perhaps the most important factor for this coronavirus season. The depth rotation will be consistent and likely similar to last year. Practice won't be as vital to a team that has played together for more than an offseason.
Taking advantage of this experience will be key early on and once Atlantic 10 play begins. After the first couple of games, we'll really be able to see if the experience allows them to take that necessary step forward.
What will be the impact of Ian Boyd's return?
Mr. Sportcenter himself - who received national attention for three straight game-winners, two of which were buzzer-beaters in 2018 - returns after missing all of last season with a wrist injury.
Those buzzer-beaters and his streaky 3-point shooting as a physical guard are how he has branded his game over three seasons with the Patriots. In the 2018-19 season, he averaged 5.2 points on 44.5% shooting (33.8% from three) and 2.1 rebounds as the team's top bench option. While shooting a low percentage, he was still the third-best 3-point shooter on the team of the regulars that year.
That mark would have been second on the team last season as the Patriots struggled to find consistency from behind the arc. It would have considerably helped their 30.4% shooting figure which was 311st in Div. 1 of 350 programs.
Any added 3-point threat will help George Mason. He will also provide depth to an already strong positional group at guard, likely coming off the bench. His size at 6'4", 240 pounds also allows Paulsen to be flexible with his lineups if they chose to go small ball. Depth and flexibility haven't exactly been calling card the last handful of seasons.
All of this is also without mentioning the four years of experience he brings as a graduate student. Boyd may not be a huge difference-maker on the stat sheet, but he is a big bonus for the Patriots.
Who is the leader of this team?
Is it necessarily a bad thing if they don't have one? Last year there was no clear-cut 'leader' or pair of leaders when Kier was off the floor due to injury. Three players, Javon Greene, Jordan Miller and A.J. Wilson averaged 12.0-14.0 points per game over the course of the year. No one really established themself as a clear star.
For years the identity of this team has strongly hinged on someone clearly leading the pack. Mason had four-year starter Otis Livingston II holding it down for his entire career. Before him, it was Marquise Moore and before that, Sherrod Wright.
The three current Patriots, with all different skillsets, provided different looks for the Patriots last season. Greene was the 3-point threat and the primary playmaker. Miller was an ideal wing whose athleticism and whole body of work are the best on the team. Wilson was the rim-protecting ball-hawk and highlight maker.
Boyd's return on the hardwood might change that slightly, but that separation of duties from the three should be the same. Each night opponents will have to respect those different elements of the game and be covered on all fronts.
The biggest question of the three is who is going to be taking a big shot in the end-of-game scenarios. However, with Boyd back in the lineup, there will be no questions there.