"We understand that in George Mason you have a group that has remnants of a Final Four run, a team that knows how to win, and basically it's like a BIG EAST game preparing for this basketball team," Irish Head Coach Mike Brey said on Sunday.
Brey's message to his team was simple. "Let it rip. We're going to go to Denver and let it rip in the Rocky Mountains. Have fun playing and going for it. We're not holding back. I think that's how this group has played most of the year, attacking and going for it, not playing safe; and certainly that's how I want us to get out of the gate on Thursday."
The Irish haven't forgotten last year's first round upset loss to Winthrop, the team generally considered to be last year's George Mason; but the players vowed a different approach to this year's tournament. "We were kind of wide eyed. It was a new experience for us," said ND Captain Rob Kurz. "But we've been through it, and I feel like that will be different this time. We're excited to play. We worked hard to get where we're at, and we feel like we have a really good chance to make a run in the tournament."
Tory Jackson added, "I think last year I was a lot more satisfied with making it to the tournament, coming in freshman year, you know. The way we're going in this year is a lot different, a lot different. Everybody is focused. We didn't really want to worry about who we played. We just wanted to worry about our mindset. We really talked about going in here with a different attitude and being hungry. You've got to be hungry throughout this whole little marathon thing going on."
George Mason tied for second place during the CAA's the regular season and earned the automatic NCAA bid by winning the conference tournament. The Patriots led the conference in scoring, field goal percentage, and rebounding margin. They were second in three point shooting. Wing man Folarian Campbell and forward Will Thomas, both seniors, are Mason's top scorers, each averaging nearly 16 points. Junior guard John Vaughan adds another 13 points to the Patriots' attack.
Talent and scoring punch are not issues for George Mason, but size may be a problem against Notre Dame. The only player taller than 6'7" averages 2 minutes of playing time per game. The Patriots compensate by defending the perimeter aggressively and rotating from the weak side to contest inside shot attempts. Opponents shoot just 32.8% from three point range; and led by Louis Birdsong's 33, Mason has blocked 184 shots this season.
Notre Dame will try to attack inside-out, feeding the post to score first and to move the ball to three point shooters when Mason double teams Luke Harangody. ND is at its best when its opponent has no choice but to double Harangody because the Irish pass and shoot so well. They complement Harangody's low post scoring threat with the nation's best assists per game average and 41% three point shooting.
The teams have two common opponents, Kansas State and Villanova. ND defeated both teams while George Mason split the two games. The Patriots surrendered 30 points and 10 rebounds to Michael Beasley, but they hounded K-State's outside shooters into 2-16 shooting and had 5 players in double figures en route to an 87-77 victory. George Mason lost to Villanova, a team that's a virtual mirror image of itself, 84-76. Villanova got scoring from its usual sources, 21 points from Scottie Reynolds and 13 from Shane Clark; but Malcolm Grant was the X-factor that day. Grant averaged just over 6 points for the season, but he didn't miss a shot against Mason and scored 13 points to swing an otherwise even game into Villanova's favor.
One match-up matters in this game. Can Will Thomas handle Luke Harangody one-on-one? If he can, Mason's perimeter defenders can attack ND's outside shooters with and without the ball. If George Mason is forced to double team Harangody, ND will find open shooters against a defense trying to rotate and recover out of the double team.
George Mason University Patriots vs. the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Thursday, March 20th, approximately 9:50PM EDT
Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
Television – CBS regional coverage, DirecTV Mega March Madness (subscription)
Radio - WNDV "U93", 92.9 FM in South Bend; WLS, 890 AM in Chicago, ESPN Radio "XL950", 950 AM in Indianapolis, and other outlets throughout the USA.
Internet Radio Links - http://und.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/nd-m-baskbl-body.html and http://www.xl950.com/