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What’s George Mason’s ceiling in the 2017-18 season?

When looking at the Atlantic 10 this offseason, there seem to be plenty of questions and few answers. While most are certain that Rhode Island is fit to take the league and make a back-to-back run to the NCAA Tournament, it gets a little convoluted after that. Typical powerhouses VCU and Dayton have to deal with head coaching changes as well as the graduation of superstar seniors. Meanwhile, programs like Saint Louis and Saint Joseph’s have the opportunity to go from 11th and 13th in the Atlantic 10 last year to somewhere in the top 6 by the end of next season. Little is certain at the top and the bottom of the league, and right in the middle lies one of the biggest enigmas: George Mason.

Dave Paulsen made an enormous jump in his second year as head coach (2016-17). After going 11-21 (5-13 A-10), he managed to catch fire in December and eventually carry that momentum into league play. The Patriots finished 20-14 (9-9 A-10) and even saw some postseason action for the first time since 2013. It’s undeniable that senior Marquise Moore (16.9 PPG, 10.9 RPG) had something to do with Mason’s improved season, but the young guns got their reps as well. Otis Livingston II (14.3 PPG, 3.0 APG, 3.1 RPG) made his mark on the Atlantic 10, and Jaire Grayer (11.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG) proved that he could both score and clean up the glass. Ian Boyd, Justin Kier, and Kamari Newman all averaged at least 4.5 PPG last season, and with the graduation of Moore, they’re all going to see a lot more court time.

It’s no secret that George Mason is going to have one of the best backcourts in the Atlantic 10 next season. Livingston II, Grayer, Boyd, Kier, and Newman can all provide good minutes, and most importantly — there’s room for improvement. George Mason’s guards are all juniors and sophomores, meaning if not this year, George Mason is going to be deadly in 2018-19.

The best part about George Mason’s guards is that their skills complement one another. Every player has something that he does well, and together, this backcourt will be tough to crack. Otis Livingston II had the 6th best free throw shooting percentage in the nation last season (92.2%), and he only committed 1.8 fouls per contest (59th best in the country). Jaire Grayer’s 44.9% three point percentage was the 2nd best in the Atlantic 10, and he’ll look to improve upon that mark this year. Ian Boyd had the 17th best offensive rebounding rate in the conference last year, which is promising considering the Patriots are losing star rebounder Marquise Moore. Justin Kier is effective at getting to the line; his 56.7 free throw rate ranked 103rd in the nation last year. Kamari Newman had a 59.8% effective field goal percentage in conference play last year, and he certainly has room for improvement.

One of the most promising and under-the-radar aspects of this 2017-18 is George Mason’s incoming freshmen A.J Wilson and Goanar Mar. The three star small forwards could quietly emerge as two of the best freshmen in the conference. There has been a lot of talk in the Atlantic 10 about newcomers, but not too many people are mentioning these guys. All things considered, Mason is stacked at the top of the key and has some impressive, rising talent on the wings. It should be a competitive Atlantic 10, but George Mason should be a contender.

George Mason’s frontcourt could prove to be an issue, but its backcourt might just make up for the hole down low. Troy Temara (1.6 PPG) and Daniel Relvao (0.8 PPG) are all of a sudden going to be called upon to play the 5 after rarely seeing the court last season. I’d expect Mason to play a 3 guard set with Mar or Wilson occupying the 4. This should look similar to Rhode Island’s guard-centered lineup with Cyril Langevine down low. The development of Mason’s forwards is going to be a big indicator on how far this team can go. If players like Peyton Aldridge, Rashaan Holloway, and Justin Tillman are able to absolutely dismantle George Mason in the post, the Patriots may have some issues. However, the Atlantic 10 is primed to be a guard-oriented league, and for that, George Mason fits the script.

So what’s George Mason’s ceiling? Honestly, this team could finish as high as 4th or 5th depending on the way this league plays out. Right now, I think Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, VCU, Saint Louis, Dayton, and Saint Joseph’s edge Mason, but in reality, not all of those teams are going to exceed or meet expectations. Dayton, VCU, Saint Louis, and Saint Joseph’ are all still big question marks. Chances are, not every one of those teams is going to finish in the Top 6 next year; that’s George Mason’s opportunity to make a move and make it into the Top 6. A lot of it is going to come down to how well these younger players can develop under Dave Paulsen. Particularly, Mar and Wilson will need to have big freshman seasons, and Kier, Newman, and Boyd will all need to make big strides in 2017-18. It’s not going to be easy, but don’t be surprised if we see George Mason in the Top 6 by the end of next season.

Grant Labedz is a college basketball superfan who loves the entire sport but definitely has favorites in the A-10 and the Big Ten. He has written for ...