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Just three weeks ago, George Mason was 0-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association and 6-7 overall, not quite the encore performance Patriots fans had hoped for after its Cinderella Final Four run last season.
That was before Jim Larranaga's club raced back into the conference title race with a five-game win streak. Now, when Virginia Commonwealth coach Anthony Grant looks at tape of the 2006-07 Patriots, he sees a team that isn't all that much different from the group he last faced as a Florida assistant last April in Indianapolis.
"The thing that impressed me about them last year was that they were really a team. Everybody contributed to their success, and they're playing the same way this season," said Grant, whose Rams will take a 16-3 overall record and a perfect 8-0 CAA mark into tonight's 7 p.m. game against Mason at the Patriot Center.
GMU (11-7, 5-3) started slowly as younger players struggled to fill the roles of departed veterans Jai Lewis, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn. Close losses to Wichita State, Creighton and Bucknell were followed by a more lopsided defeat at Duke, and then the Patriots opened conference play by falling to Drexel, Old Dominion and William & Mary.
But since Larranaga named junior Jordan Carter the team's starting point guard, the Patriots have taken flight. Their average margin of victory during the recent win streak is 21.8 points, helping them move into a tie for fourth place with ODU.
"It would've been better if I had figured this thing out a month ago," Larranaga joked.
Now Larranaga and Co. have to figure out how to slow down a VCU attack that leads the CAA in scoring offense (75.6 points per game). Mason is No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (56.8), but the Patriots have yet to face a team that plays at a faster tempo than the Rams.
"They're very active and put a lot of pressure on you defensively, then they turn around and pressure you because of the way they shoot from the 3-point line," Larranaga added. "It's like preparing for Florida all over again."Neal doing it all
After transferring from LaSalle, Gary Neal arrived at Towson with the reputation of a dangerous but undisciplined scoring machine.
Neal did little to dispel that notion last season. He led the Tigers in scoring, but took enough bad shots to make Allen Iverson blush and wasn't exactly determined on the defensive end.
This year, the senior from Aberdeen, Md., is showing off a much more complete game. He's still scoring in bunches--25.2 points per game, good for fifth in the nation--but he's also being more selective with his shots and giving his teammates a chance to share the offensive load.
"He's improved tremendously," Towson coach Pat Kennedy said. "He's playing much better overall. That's exciting to see from a player of his ability."
Neal showed exactly how far he has come last week. He scored 33 points in a win over rival Loyola, then became the first Towson player with three-straight 30-point games when he dropped 31 in a narrow loss at Hofstra. When UNC-Wilmington tried to double-team him, Neal responded with 19 points and a career-high nine assists.
For the week, he averaged 27.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.7 steals. He also shot 52 percent from the floor, an amazing number for someone who takes so many highly contested shots.
"He can make plays with people on him," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. "That's what separates him and that's what will enable him to play on the next level."Inconsistency bothers Moss
Last week, UNC-Wilmington followed up one of its best efforts of the season (a 74-65 loss at VCU) with its worst performance to date, a 75-61 drubbing by Towson in which the Seahawks were thoroughly outworked on both ends of the floor.
It's been that kind of season for first-year head coach Benny Moss, who inherited a team that won 25 games last season before losing four seniors to graduation and athletic junior T.J. Carter to a season-ending injury.
"I've definitely earned a psychology degree this season," Moss said. "We've pushed a lot of buttons. We've been positive and coaxed. We've been negative and run them, benched them and kicked them out of practice."
One of the Seahawks who has responded well to greater responsibility is former Woodbridge High standout Daniel Fountain. After a slow start, the junior shooting guard has scored 13 or more points in eight of the last nine games--consistency that Moss would love to see from the rest of his inexperienced squad.
"Some of them are getting it, but some still have a way to go," he added. "We're 4-13 for a reason. We don't want to leave anyone behind, but we will if we have to."Time for bracket busting
ESPN will announce the matchups for its annual BracketBusters games on Monday, CAA assistant commissioner Rob Washburn confirmed yesterday.
All 12 of the CAA's teams are slated to participate in the event, which will feature 51 games over two days--13 of which will be televised on one of ESPN's networks.
The participating teams have already been predesignated by ESPN as home or away teams, a situation that will eliminate any possibility of matching the top two teams in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25. Both No. 1 Butler and No. 2 VCU are scheduled to host home games.
Eight CAA teams participated in BracketBusters last year and the league posted a 6-2 record. The conference won all three of its nationally televised contests as VCU edged Albany 70-67, Old Dominion rolled past Marist 84-71 and George Mason shocked Wichita State 70-67. The CAA is now a perfect 4-0 in televised BracketBusters games, with Drexel having posted a 74-70 win at Ball State in 2005.
Pecora would love for his Hofstra squad to get a shot at Butler, but will settle for any opponent that is 10 to 20 spots ahead of the Pride (No. 64) in the current RPI rankings.
"We want to play the best team out there. That's what helps you come tournament time," he said.
To reach JIM McCONNELL:
William & Mary
VCU at George Mason, 7 p.m.
William & Mary at Old Dominion, 7
Delaware at Towson, 7 p.m.
Hofstra at Georgia State, 7 p.m.
James Madison at Northeastern, 7
Drexel at UNC Wilmington, 7 p.m.