CAA First Place Showdown: Everybody’s a WinnerPosted by IRenko on January 9th, 2012
I. Renko is an RTC correspondent.
On Saturday night, the only two undefeated teams in the CAA faced off in a battle for first place, as Georgia State visited George Mason. Only one team could, and did, emerge victorious, as Mason held off the Panthers for a 61-58 win. But given the gulf that separated these two teams coming into the season, the result was a meaningful “win” for the coaches of both teams, each of whom has had something to prove during the early part of the CAA season.
At the start of this season, George Mason and Georgia State had little in common. Mason won 27 games last year, won the CAA regular season championship, and earned a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Georgia State went 12-19, finished in the bottom half of the CAA, and had its season promptly ended in the CAA Tournament — by George Mason. Mason has been a perennial CAA contender over the last several years and pulled off a miracle run to the Final Four in 2006. Georgia State has been a perennial also-ran since joining the CAA in 2005 and hasn’t played a single national postseason game of any kind. Mason, returning three starters from last year’s squad, was picked to finish second in the conference this year. Georgia State was picked to finish second to last.
About the only thing the Patriots and the Panthers shared was an offseason coaching change. But the circumstances of the two coaching changes were considerably different, one resulting from success, the other from futility. Jim Larranaga, who built the Mason program and led the Patriots on their improbable Final Four run in 2006, left for the higher profile of the ACC, landing a coaching job at Miami. Mason, in turn, landed a coach with a high profile ACC pedigree and his own Final Four experience to replace him: Paul Hewitt, who took Georgia Tech to the Final Four in 2003. Georgia State’s coaching change was the result of four subpar seasons turned in by Rod Barnes. To replace him, the Panthers went deep into the Summit League, where they found Ron Hunter, who had been coaching at IUPUI since well before it was a Division I program.
Despite these different trajectories, both coaches have had something to prove coming into conference play. Hewitt inherited a team with high expectations, but soon after taking the job, learned that Luke Hancock, one of the team’s best players — perhaps the best — had decided to transfer. The personnel problems continued, as senior point guard Andre Cornelius was suspended in September after being arrested for credit card fraud and larceny. The season itself brought more misgivings, as Mason got off to a somewhat rocky start, losing early games to Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
But the win over Georgia State capped an important stretch for the Patriots in which they’ve re-established themselves as a team to beat — perhaps the team to beat — in the CAA. They’ve now won five straight, a streak that has included four of their best wins this year, including victories over Manhattan, at Charleston, and at Old Dominion. The win against Old Dominion was the first time the Patriots have beat them in Norfolk in eight years. And on Saturday night, they showed that they have the depth to win even when they don’t bring their A game. Leading scorer Ryan Pearson had a miserable night, shooting 0-4 from the field and committing six turnovers. But guard Vertrail Vaughns and forward Mike Morrison picked up the slack, scoring 17 and 14 points, respectively. Vaughns’ three three-pointers were critical to busting Georgia State’s zone schemes and Morrison’s offensive rebounding and yeoman’s work around the bucket helped the Patriots overcome the Panthers’ grinding defensive style. If the Patriots can continue to get contributions from throughout the roster — including from Cornelius, who recently returned to the team — they could be every bit as good as they were expected to be at the end of last year.
As for Georgia State, a loss never felt so good. The Panthers have been one of college basketball’s most surprising teams this year. After dropping their first three games of the season — no surprise to observers who expected them to pick up where they left off the last six years — the Panthers reeled off 10 straight wins. Last week bought the first real tests of the year though: three games against the three teams predicted to finish atop the CAA in preseason polls. The Panthers didn’t flinch. They beat Drexel at home and took out VCU in Richmond, before the narrow loss to George Mason. As Hunter said after the game, “If you told me that you play Mason, VCU, and Drexel in your first week and you come out 2-1, I wouldn’t play. I woulda taken it.”
Against George Mason, the Panthers demonstrated the defensive toughness and will that has fueled their unlikely place as a CAA contender. Hunter employs a mix of zone schemes (1-3-1, 1-2-2, 2-3) and varying levels of full court pressure in an effort to, as he says, “coach against the other team’s point guard” and confuse opposing offenses. The result on Saturday night was 19 turnovers by the Patriots and a 39.3% field goal shooting percentage. On the season, the Panthers have the 10th most efficient defense in the country, per Kenpom.com. Since their first three losses, the Panthers have yet to allow a team to score more than a point per possession and against the best teams in the CAA, they gave up just 44, 53, and 58 points.
But perhaps more important than a stifling defense, what Hunter has given the Panthers is a belief in themselves. Hunter noted recently that his biggest challenge has been changing the culture of a program where mediocrity had become ingrained. As he showed on Saturday night, the intense coach can also be a tough motivator, sometimes tearing into his players on the sidelines for their mistakes. But don’t let that fool you. This is a coach who seems to have a genuine affection for the young men he leads, declaring after the game that he is “really, really proud of my team,” who “left it all on the court and gave me everything they had.” If Hunter can continue to elicit that kind of effort from his players, then his postgame promise should be easily fulfilled: “We’re gonna be around to stay for a while. We’re gonna be around.”