George Mason's CAA journey truly begins on Thursday against rival Old Dominion. Can the Patriots repeat as conference champions?
Perennial Colonial Athletic Association contenders George Mason (10-4, 2-0 CAA) and Old Dominion (7-7, 2-0) will square off Thursday night at the Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Va, as the calendar flip to "2012" gets CAA conference play into full swing. The familiar foes have met 25 times since the 1999-2000 season, with Mason holding a 13-12 edge. This season's edition of the Patriots looks to accomplish a rare feat this evening: win in Norfolk.
George Mason has lost seven straight games at Old Dominion, a streak that dates back to February of 2004. The Patriots didn't win in Norfolk in their 2006 Final Four year, nor did they win during last season's stellar 16-2 CAA regular season. Four of the losses have been by a total of nine points, and last year the Patriots lost a nail-biter, 69-65, after Andre Cornelius missed a potential game winning three point shot with four seconds left. But fear not Mason fans, this year's team looks like the one to end the dreary defeats in Southeastern Virginia.
The Patriots return the core of last season's 27-win CAA regular season champions and NCAA tournament team, and despite the transition from Jim Larranaga to Paul Hewitt as head man, George Mason is hitting their stride as the new year begins. The team has won eight of 10, and leads the CAA in scoring (71.6 ppg) as well as shooting percentage (.479). They are paced by seniors Ryan Pearson (19 PPG, 8 RPG), Mike "Don't Call Me Mark" Morrison (10 PPG, 7 RPG) and the aforementioned Cornelius, who has shot 52 percent from three point land since his return from a 10-game suspension. Cornelius personally ruined my new year, torching my alma mater William and Mary on Monday for five three-balls and 20 points in a 70-56 Mason win over the Tribe.
Old Dominion on the other hand, after making back-to-back NCAA tournaments, is rebuilding behind now-mustacheless head coach Blaine Taylor (WHYYY Blaine? Why???). The only impact player who returned from last season's 27-win Monarchs squad is senior guard Kent Bazemore, and Old Dominion has struggled in non-conference play, losing tough games to the likes of Northern Iowa, Kentucky, Richmond and, most recently, Missouri. ODU entered January CAA play with an overall losing record for just the second time in the last 10 years. But, despite being .500 overall, the Monarchs are 2-0 in conference play and beginning to play much better.
After beginning the year shorthanded and injured, Taylor's team may finally be at full strength. Bazemore (13 PPG, 5 RPG, 3 APG) appears back to normal after an offseason foot injury, and Old Dominion has added Dontel Hill and Richard Ross for the second semester, giving the Monarchs some much needed depth. Senior Chris Cooper (no, not this guy) has been outstanding in the early going for ODU, averaging a double-double (11/10) while shooting 54 percent from the floor. As a team, though, the Monarchs shoot just 39 percent from the floor, one of the worst mark's in the nation.
All this is to say that while it appears on paper the Patriots should end the Norfolk losing streak tonight, if they don't it shouldn't come as a shock to Mason Nation, as each and every CAA game will be a battle this season. Final Four darling VCU appeared to still be the cream of the crop in the league, but lost Wednesday night at home to upstart Georgia State. Preseason favorite Drexel is now playing much better, and neither James Madison nor ODU should be counted out when factoring in possible CAA champions. Heck, even William and Mary has earned a win already in league play (though in no way am I suggesting they could take the league crown. Or am I?).
George Mason's journey through the CAA begins in earnest tonight, and if they are to emerge in March as the league's (probably lone) representative, it will most definitely be a hard-earned berth in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country. I suggest the Patriots start protecting the ball better if they want to duplicate last season's success - 15 turnovers a game a conference champ does not make.
Tipoff is set for 7:00 Pm tonight at Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, VA. The game will be televised on Comcast SportsNet. For more on the Patriots vs. Monarchs game, be sure to follow this StoryStream. For more college basketball news and notes, visit SB Nation's college basketball hub.