Special to FOXSports.com
At one point last season George Mason was 10-1 in league play in the Colonial Athletic Association. Not bad for a team that had 10 combined freshmen and sophomores.
Things were working well.
Then the bottom dropped out. The Patriots went 2-8 to close out the year and didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Things had to change and head coach Jim Larranaga knew it.
After meeting with his staff in the offseason, Larranaga said chemistry and improved defensive intensity had to change.
“We had a very young team. A lot of guys just didn’t know each other well, didn’t know each other’s games. So often times we wouldn’t find the open man quite as well as we would have liked,” Larranaga said.
“Then, our defense was not the priority in our player’s minds. It was in the coaches’ minds, but not the players. I think our players thought more about the offense.”
The Patriots entered the offseason with a goal in mind, a plan in a place and a trip to Italy in August on the calendar. That trip, Larranaga says, made a tremendous difference.
“The players became a really close knit group. They developed personal relationships with all of the other guys on the team,” Larranaga said. “Our chemistry became much better in our willingness to share the ball with each other. Most importantly, our willingness to commit to great defense made a tremendous difference.”
Fast forward to February 15 in Richmond, Virginia. This same group of Patriots knocked off one of the best opponents it will face this season during conference play. Mason beat Virginia Commonwealth 71-51 in Richmond. It was a quick punch and the game was over in the first half.
It is the 11th time George Mason (22-5, 14-2 CAA) has beaten an opponent by double digits in the current 12 game winning streak. The team hasn’t lost since January 8 when Old Dominion beat them.
The offensive balance was on point against the Rams. Five players scored in double digits. Of the 23 made field goals, 17 were assisted buckets.
VCU head coach Shaka Smart said that balance and versatility is what makes this George Mason team so deadly.
“They have a lot of different guys that can hurt you in a variety of ways. They never really have one guy that has to put the team on his back for a long stretch of the game,” Smart said.
“They are very good. They are versatile. They are talented at every position. They share the basketball. They have really dedicated themselves to playing very well on the defensive end. All of those things make them a very good team.”
The Patriots are winning with players that came to the program on the ripple effect of the Final Four. Larranaga and his staff recruited players from New York, Texas, North Carolina, Florida and, of course, the Virginia-D.C. area.
Mason mania spilled over to areas where the team had not really recruited in the past. Even with the successful run to the Final Four, Larranaga and his staff didn’t try to land the top 100 players. Instead, they plucked away the right players. The Patriots strung together back-to-back recruiting classes that were recognized as the best of the mid-majors.
Larranaga said the balance his team has from those two classes, paired with the stability of senior Cam Long, is one of its greatest strengths. That strength has played into the current streak and many are wondering just how long the Patriots can go into the post-season.
“I think the versatility is something that we recognized before the season and we wanted to take advantage of it,” Larranaga said. “We really stressed passing the ball and getting assists. The guys have really bought into that. When you shoot for the goal of 16 assists per game, the guys have really challenged themselves to achieve that goal each night.”
Go back to the 2006 George Mason team. Prior to the dream season that ended in the Final Four, the Patriots finished 16-13 the year before.
That same team spent the offseason working on chemistry and defense. That same team got hot at the right time.
This group of Patriots might just be even better from top to bottom than 2006 but Larranaga isn’t going there.
“We have a big game on Saturday against Northern Iowa and we are looking forward to preparing for them tomorrow,” he said as he was packing things up in Richmond on Tuesday night.