It took Isaiah Armwood burying his first-ever Division 1 attempt from 3-point land to beat what was essentially the same George Mason team at the beginning of last season. What has changed between this year and last? For the most part it has been experience. Sure, the Patriots have added a few freshmen, but they key contributors remain the same, just more polished and improved.
George Mason is a team that is not afraid to take chances. In 2006, their coach called for the team to run a play with 10 minutes left in the game, and they continued to run that play for the next 25 possessions -- until their victory over UConn was secure. Jim Larranaga knows a few things about basketball, and he will be preparing to cook up a game plan to confuse the Wildcats and throw the team off-balance, just like he did in Puerto Rico.
The last time these two teams met, Ryan Pearson was the high-scorer for George Mason, and he has improved from his average of around 11 points last year to 14.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The 6'6" junior forward is, however, only a close-second on the team in the points-category.
The scoring star of this team has been senior guard, Cam Long, who averages 15.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Long shoots 42.6% from 3-point range, and is the team leader in 3-point attempts. The third and fourth leading scorers (and regular starters) are sophomore forward Luke Hancock (10.7ppg) and Andre Cornelius (9.9ppg) -- but both were "banged up" in practice this week.
The fifth starter, Mike Morrison is perhaps your classic "glue" player. At 6'9", the junior center is the tallest of the Patriots' regulars, and will be tasked with matching up with Mouphtaou Yarou, most likely. Morrison is fifth on the team in scoring (6.7 ppg) and second in rebounding (5.3ppg).
Villanova, meanwhile, is expected to return to the three-guard lineup that earned them their hot start to this season. Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher will both start and share duties at the point guard position, while Corey Stokes will play on the wing and Yarou and Antonio Pena will play the 5 and 4, respectively. With everyone healthy, Jay Wright will be able to go 9-deep on his bench in tomorrow's game.
Villanova has a notable height advantage on the high end, with Yarou and Mo Sutton both checking in a few inches taller than GMU's Morrison. That said, Cam Long is listed at 6'4", and may be a tough match-up for Villanova's smaller guards.
With nothing left to lose except their season, the Wildcats will hopefully discard the slowed-down, clock-killing "burn" offense, in favor of the more wide-open attack that has seen some success over the past few years. Key to any game, is being able to get the ball into the hands of Corey Stokes, something that happens far less often when the offense goes into "burn" mode.
Stokes is Villanova's second leading scorer, but trails Corey Fisher by less than a point. He is, by far, the team's best option from beyond the arc, shooting 43.4% from that range, and keeping defenders near the perimeter in the process. While Dominic Cheek and James Bell have both shown some ability to score from the perimeter (Cheek, remember, was a perfect 4-4 from deep in a game earlier this season), neither has had the opportunity to really fill that role.
Pena and Yarou, meanwhile, will be tasked with taking control in the paint, and they should at least have a size advantage down low. Moreso, perhaps, than scoring, Villanova will need a good performance from it's bigs on the offensive glass. Pena, however, has been a contributor on offense, and his mid-range jumper will hopefully re-appear to convert some of those offensive rebounds into points.
Mason is a capable team from the perimeter, and Villanova must be quick to pick up their defensive assignments, or risk getting lit up from deep. The Patriots are also adept, however, at getting to the free-throw line, and do so at only a slightly lower-rate than the Wildcats. At the line, the Patriots shoot 69% as a team.
Assuming Villanova's offense returns to normalcy on Friday afternoon, this could likely be a game that is decided on the free-throw line. George Mason gets to the line a good number of times in each game, but hasn't been as efficient there as Villanova. The 'Cats need to maximize their attempts from the charity-stripe, meanwhile, since about a quarter of their points this season have come in that fashion (and, frankly, we all watched as free-throw shooting bailed the ice-cold 'Cats out against Robert Morris last year).
This will be the last chance for Villanova to flex it's muscles and show the world that they can still win. By knocking off the 8th-seeded Patriots, they will earn themselves a Sunday showdown with the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes, a favorite of many to reach the Final Four, and perhaps win the title. A loss, however, would be the 6th-straight, and the 'Cats would whimper into the off-season with their tails between their legs and a whole lot of questions to answer.
The game will tip off at 2:10 PM from Cleveland, Ohio and will be broadcast live on TNT as well as available on-line from March Madness On Demand.
Also: If you haven't participated in our Blogathon yet, either by donating or pledging to donate a set amount, please consider it. Not only does the money go to a good cause, but you can get a t-shirt or signed item as well (and it's good karma for a team hoping to play in Newark next week).