Sure, they are the great "Cinderella" story and most of the "neutral" fans will almost certainly gravitate towards them. Sure, they create some problems with the things that they do best. But the bottom line is George Mason is a team that was an eleven seed for a reason. George Mason is a team that did lose to Mississippi State once and Hofstra twice.
Of course, they are also a team that knocked off three traditional powers in Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut on the way to the Final Four. Any team good enough to beat Connecticut is good enough to beat anyone else in college basketball.
George Mason, a Closer Look
George Mason is a program that is used to success, just not this level of success. Coach Jim Larranaga has led his team to eight straight winning seasons. In that time, the Patriots have won 157 games, just under 20 a year and earned five post-season bids. Three of those bids were to the NCAA Tournament where the Patriots lost in the first round in 1999 and 2001.
Like the Gators, The Patriots are coached by a New York native who graduated from Providence College. Jim Larranaga played at Providence through ‘71 and at the time was the school's fifth leading scorer. Donovan came through 15 years later and passed the George Mason mentor on his way to leading the Friars to their second Final Four.
Like the Gators, GMU has all five starters averaging in double figures. Like the Gators, they are a very good defensive team, holding opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field and just 31 percent from long range.
To me the key guy is 6'7" sophomore Will Thomas who plays a lot bigger than his height. Thomas was a horse against Connecticut with 19 points and 12 rebounds. He also did a fine job on U-Conn's front court standouts Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone. He also produced an 18/14 effort against the physical front line of Michigan State.
The next key element is the ability to score on the wing. Folarin Campbell and Lamar Butler is each is shooting 50 percent from three-point range in the tournament and they combine for just under 33 points a game.
Their defense might be the tightest Florida has seen on the perimeter in the post season. GMU tournament opponents are shooting a miserable 39 percent from the field and just 29 percent beyond the arc. And they put pressure on the ball without fouling; averaging fewer than 13 fouls a game.
Patriots' Weaknesses Must Be Exploited
George Mason does have a problem on the defensive glass, just as the Gators have this year. GMU opponents have grabbed 50 offensive rebounds in the four tournament games, and Florida has been tremendous hitting the boards, grabbing 28 offensive rebounds in the two Regional games in Minneapolis. They have no player over 6'7" and the Gators need to make use of the ability to go over the top, both against pressure and in the half court offense.
GMU is also a team that doesn't have much depth. While Florida's depth is often over-stated, the Gators have just one player averaging 30 minutes a game (Taurean Green). The Patriots on the other hand, get 30 minutes-plus from every one of its starters. The opportunity to try and wear them down, especially in the front court seems to be there.
Five Keys to Advancing
- Keep Green effective and fresh ----- GMU loves to hassle the other team's primary ball handler. Taurean Green has had just ten turnovers in four NCAA games after committing eight in the SEC Tournament Final. He has to take care of the ball and get the Gators into their offense. Early foul trouble would be a major concern.
- Play BIG ----- Noah and Horford have the chance to control this basketball game with their superior size and skills. Each had double-doubles against Villanova.
- Come out smoking ----- There's no question the crowd will be with the Patriots and with good reason. GMU will feed off that positive energy, but Florida has to make it work for them as well. A fast start quiets the casual support for Mason and lets the Gators try and establish some doubt in the minds of the upstarts from Fairfax, Virginia.
- Watch the fouls ----- The guys in striped shirts are human and could get caught up in the "Cinderella" story, too. Don't believe me? GMU has been whistled for seven fewer fouls per tournament game than their opponents. They have shot twelve more free throws in each NCAA game than their opponents have.
- Be patient and stay cool ----- Stuff may go wrong at times. Remember this is a young basketball team with four sophomore starters while George Mason has three seniors in the lineup. Florida needs to stay within itself if and when things go poorly and maintain the poise and maturity that go the team this far. That is much harder to do in this atmosphere.