Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Preview - George Mason at O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Classic, Thursday, November 20, 2 PM, ESPNU

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

The #5 Wildcats (2-0 overall) are enjoying the tropical temperatures of the Carribean Sea this week, as they travel to the eight-team, O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Classic.

Here is a concise preview of the quarterfinal game, against George Mason, of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).  It will take place at 2 PM, and will be televised on ESPNU.

The Viewpoint on the George Mason Patriots

George Mason is a highly dangerous mid-major program, one of the most threatening in the nation, in fact.  For this basketball enthusiast, I will always have a soft spot for George Mason due to its incredible Cinderella run in the 2006 NCAA tournament, when they reached the Final Four as a #11 seed.  Along with LSU in 1986, George Mason holds the distinction of being the lowest seed in NCAA tournament history to successfully embark upon the metaphorical Road to the Final Four.

And for this avid Villanova enthusiast, the fact that George Mason advanced from the Elite Eight, by upsetting the #2 seed, the hated Connecticut Huskies, made the Cinderella run all the more sweet.  Seeing the Huskies going home, at the hands of the green-and-gold-clad Patriots, was incredible.  (It was one of the most satisfying NCAA tournament games that I've ever seen, before or since...)

Coach and Program - Jim Larranaga (13th season)

Larranaga has had tremendous success in Fairfax, Virginia.  When he first arrived in Fairfax for the 1997-98 season, GMU was in the doldrums - the Patriots hadn't posted a winning record, let alone a postseason bid, since 1990.  The team had won just 52 games over the past six seasons, averaging less than nine victories a season.  The team Larranaga had inherited, during the previous season, had gone 10-17 overall, 4-12 CAA, and finished in ninth place.

Larranaga's first team had similar struggles, understandably, and went 9-18 overall, 6-10 CAA.  But since then, his revival of the program has been little short of miraculous.  He has never had another losing season overall, and has posted a winning record every year within the CAA, except for 2007, when the Patriots went 9-9.  In summary, over the last 11 seasons, George Mason has qualified for four NCAA tournaments and two NITs, an impressive record for a mid-major program.

In 1999, his second team went 19-9, 13-3 CAA, won the CAA regular-season and tournament titles, and was invited to the NCAA tournament as a #14 seed.  Although the team made a quick exit at the hands of #3 Cincinnati, by a 24-point margin, the groundwork had been laid.

In 2000, the Patriots shared the CAA regular-season title, but didn't win the CAA tournament and did not reach the postseason.  In 2001, the Patriots returned to the NCAA tournament as a #14 seed, and nearly upset #3 Maryland (a cross-town rival in the Washington, DC region), losing just 83-80.

In 2002 and 2004, the Patriots made NIT appearances, and in 2005, they did not qualify for postseason play - all of which makes the 2006 Final Four even more remarkable.

Prior to its Cinderella run in 2006, George Mason had made the NCAA tournament only three times (twice under Larranaga), and had never won a first-round game.  So when they made one of the most stunning runs in the history of NCAA tournament, winning four games in a row against top-flight competition, it just goes to show that the basketball gods are often full of surprises.

After not reaching the postseason in 2007, the Patriots rebounded the following year, going 23-11, winning the CAA tournament, and returning to the NCAA tournament as a #12 seed, but fell to #5 Notre Dame in the first round...

Last season, 2008-09, George Mason had another superb season.  The Patriots went 22-11 overall, 13-5 CAA, good for second place.  They did not win the CAA tournament, however, and so headed to the NIT, where they fell in the first round.  Nonetheless, Larranaga has reached four NCAA tournaments and three NITs in the last decade, an impressive accomplishment for any team, but even more so for a CAA school.

The Unique Vulnerability of Playing in Holiday Tournaments

It's difficult for powerful mid-majors, such as George Mason, to get high-major schools (such as Villanova) to risk regular-season games with them.  One might ask then, why Villanova and other high-majors participate in exotic holiday tournaments.  The reason: these holiday tournaments attract high-major interest, becausee they do not count against the regular-season cap, which is why all of them will have an eclectic mix of high-major, mid-major, and low-major schools.

In short, this is certainly going to be the best chance George Mason will get this year, for a big, NCAA at-large bid-worthy, upset.  (Or an upset that could bump it up a seed or two, if they win the CAA tournament - the difference between a #13 and a #12 come March.)

Villanova is ranked #5, and the teams will be playing on a neutral court, neutral (i.e., non-Big East) officials, and a crowd that will undoubtedly be rooting passionately for the underdog Patriots.  The Wildcats, not surprisingly, are one of only two ranked teams on GMU's schedule (the other being another mid-major, #19 Dayton).  Ironically, GMU could also face Dayton on Friday in Puerto Rico - if both teams either win or lose Thursday.  Dayton and Georgia Tech are also on this side of the bracket, and so Villanova will get one or the other on Friday.

This will be the fourth meeting all-time, between the schools - two will have been in holiday tournaments:

December 3, 1986, @ George Mason - Villanova 82, George Mason 79

November 16, 1998 - Pavilion - Villanova 86, George Mason 76

On November 23, 2007, Villanova and George Mason met in the semifinals of another holiday tournament, the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Florida.  The Wildcats emerged with a 84-76 victory over the Patriots.

(As you can see, they were all relatively close).

The 2009-10 Patriots

George Mason enters the game unbeaten, having narrowly defeated Liberty in the opener, 76-72, and besting Dartmouth, 60-44.  Both games were at home.

GMU is short on experience, with only one senior.  They lost four seniors this year, including three of the starters from last year's NIT qualifier.  Seven players are in their first season, and four in their second.

The two remaining starters are their star, shooting guard Cam Long, a junior who was third-team all-CAA last season, and their only senior,  forward Louis Birdsong.  Long led the Patriots in scoring, steals, assists, and three-pointers, and was second on the team in rebounding with 4.8 a game.  Birdsong has started for three seasons, although he has only modest averages in points and rebounds.  He's being switched from the "four" to the "three" this season.

Three sophomores will be in the starting lineup - forward Ryan Pearson made the all-CAA Rookie team last season, while another forward, Mike Morrison, had a fine second half during last season.  Andre Cornelius is handling the point guard position, and is the biggest question for GMU.

Offsetting the lack of experience, George Mason did add, what some analysts believe, is the best incoming class in the non-BCS collegiate scene., in fact, named the George Mason class the best of the non-BCS-conference schools.  Obviously, given that much blue-chip talent, some of those players could have an impact.

Wildcats Update

Villanova enters the game on the heels of a 103-65 annihilation of City Series rival Penn, at the Pavilion on Monday night, and ranked 5th nationally.  The easy victory over Penn (the Wildcats led 55-25 at halftime) permitted Jay Wright to use plenty of the Villanova newcomers for significant lengths of time.  The Wildcats will not have suspended senior guard Reggie Redding, but are otherwise healthy.

Villanova is the most powerful team in the eight-school field, but that often means being a target, and George Mason is not likely to be intimidated, given the success of the team in the last few years.  This sort of game, especially on a neutral court, can be a minefield...

I'll have a full recap after the game.

Also, check out the other fine Villanova blogs, on the sidebar, for their takes.

Chris at I Bleed Blue and White has already written his preview - preGame: #5 Villanova vs. George Mason ...

And Brian at VUHoops has published Judging George Mason...

Go Wildcats!

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