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2023-24 Atlantic 10 Team Preview: George Mason

9. George Mason Patriots

Last Season: It was a fascinating time in George Mason men’s basketball a little over two years ago when they hired Kim English. He had one goal when he arrived in Fairfax: change the mindset of this perennial A-10 loser. While some decent seasons were mixed in, the combined efforts of Paul Hewitt and Dave Paulsen were becoming intolerable for the school. English’s first season went alright, a 14-16 record was not much but highlighted by a few wins against good programs. English turned that into a 20-win season and a quarter-final appearance, ending the regular season on an absurd six-game win streak. 

The Patriots faced off against Saint Louis — who proceeded to stomp on them — but it was evident progress from the season before. Josh Oduro solidified himself as one of the better A-10 talents to go through Fairfax, making his second consecutive all-conference first-team and hitting the 1,000-point mark. An injury to Victor Bailey took them off track a bit given it was a sustained one, but still made good on the season. 

It would’ve been safe to pencil Mason as a team that would be a lock for the top four… until Kim English took the vacant Providence job. Not only did another Big East power whisk away a promising young coach from the A-10, English got a few of his guys to follow: Josh Oduro, Justyn Fernandez, and Davonte ‘Ticket’ Gains were the three Patriots turned Friars. Mason also said goodbye to a number of other guys who ran out of eligibility, beyond their best A-10 coach getting poached. 

Now they turn to a program icon from their historic Final Four in 2006 under Jim Larranaga, a disciple of Kevin Willard and someone with strong DMV roots: Tony Skinn. As he assumes the head coaching post, many believe that some of the magic from 2006 will follow him as he tries to continue what English was doing. As is with any new coach who turns an entire roster over, there are tons of new moving parts. Skinn brought along tons of new transfers and only held onto three guys from last season. 

Returnees: Ronald Polite, Devin Dinkins, Malik Henry

Out: Josh Oduro, Justyn Fernandez, Davonte ‘Ticket’ Gaines, John Ojiako, DeVon Cooper, Victor Bailey, Elvis Nnaji, Blake Jones

In: Tre’ Wood, Jared Billups, Darius Maddox, Woody Newton, Keyshawn Hall, Baraka Okojie, Austin Ball, Jalen Haynes, Amari Kelly, Nicolas Pavrette

Potential Strengths: The element of surprise is on Skinn’s side for his first season, and he has the advantage of a clock that won’t be ticking right away — assuming everything goes just fine for them. There are tons of moving parts here which should be helpful for Skinn to adjust accordingly. Tre’ Wood is a graduate leader who has exceptional playmaking skills with over four assists per game last season. Polite should likely win the starting spot being the stronger scoring threat as he also averaged four assists per game. Jared Billups showed flashes at Siena with his combo style being a 6’5” guard. He has  an ability to get to the line in two seasons shooting 70%+ from there. Darius Maddox came over from Virginia Tech — he was having a career season until he missed the final 14 games, but is another large off-guard at 6’5” who can hit the three.

Jalen Haynes, a two-time transfer, will need a waiver to play. Haynes is coming off a monster season at ETSU with 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest — a muscly forward who can feast inside with the best of them. The same can be said for Amari Kelly, a Coastal Carolina transfer who will provide more size inside and adequate shot-blocking. 6’11” Nicolas Pavrette will also push the issue inside, while Malik Henry retains his hybrid role at the four. Woody Newton also presents length and size at 6’8” with more defensive potential — his waiver was processed by the NCAA after transferring from Syracuse and Oklahoma State. 

Keyshawn Hall joins the ride from UNLV, a promising shooter who shot 50% from three and showed defensive promise. Skinn also landed two freshmen in Austin Ball and Baraka Okojie. Ball is a 6’7” wing who will add to this very deep wing rotation, and Okojie gives them another ball handler behind Wood, Polite, and second-year guard Devin Dinkins. Skinn will construct his offense to create ball movement, mismatches, and easy chances for pick-and-roll scores. If you haven’t figured out yet, Skinn’s charges for year one are long, athletic, and physical specimens.

Potential Weaknesses: If you’re looking at a glaring part of the x’s and o’s, three-point shooting is wobbly for the Patriots. Maddox (32%) and Polite (36%) are the only true snipers this team holds that shot with volume last year. Everyone else has a history of subpar percentages or low volume from that area. Given the overwhelming size that they do have, they may be able to bully their way to win games using their size even if they can’t knock down their threes. But  instances will come up when they are in shootouts and have to hit threes.  

Haynes is of concern here being a multi-time transfer. The NCAA has been on a warpath with granting multi-time transfer waivers (graduate students are the exceptions). While Patriots faithful, and Skinn, will hold their collective breath to a degree, they probably shouldn’t be banking on him getting a waiver this season. This may not be a big problem with two graduate students holding down minutes (Wood and Kelly), but it is still hurting their chance to crack the top four. 

There are tons of elements to every offense, but this roster is unique because it has a very diverse cast of characters who all do very different things. And while having a few holdovers is nice, can Skinn resemble some continuity in year one? Between potential waivers being denied, lots of new guys trying to get used to each other, and a new system in place, there is a margin for error. It may not be as big as you think — very modest expectations have something to do with this — but it can go poorly in a lot of different ways. 

Outlook: I personally don’t expect much from George Mason this year, but they are too talented to be stuck in the pillow fight. Skinn is the A-10’s winner in the portal department by far which is something to be proud of. There is going to be tons of foundation-building this season with a first-time head coach running the show. They can certainly find themselves in the thick of it, but lots will have to roll in their favor. Skinn’s collective talent for year one is certainly good enough to win them games based on individual skills alone. Most will be more interested in what kind of identity the Patriots will have and projecting Skinn’s potential as a coach.