George Mason's Louis Birdsong making the most of his senior season
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Louis Birdsong's season at George Mason had followed a fading trajectory, from starter to complementary contributor, but in the final seconds Wednesday at Delaware with the Patriots in danger of losing their fourth straight game, he was back at the forefront.
Trailing by two points, the Blue Hens were surely going to turn to leading scorer Jawan Carter. So Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga turned to Birdsong, his only senior, to disrupt Carter's rangy threat. At 6 feet 6, Birdsong wouldn't guard the 5-11 Carter, but with Delaware fond of setting screens, the George Mason veteran would be waiting on the back side of it.
The play unfolded as expected. Carter, already with 25 points, rolled around a teammate for a three-point attempt with eight seconds to go. Birdsong's reach brought him hand to hand with the shooter, forcing a high-arcing bid that nicked the rim. The third-place Patriots needed to survive another Delaware possession before securing a 61-59 victory and first-round bye in next week's Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
"I told him afterward that it was the most important play of the game," Larranaga said. "He didn't block the shot, but he made him miss."
Whether as a starter or reserve, Birdsong has played an important role since arriving in Fairfax the season after George Mason's Final Four run in 2006. The team will salute him before Saturday's game against Northeastern, his final regular season appearance at Patriot Center.
Birdsong will tie Jai Lewis for fifth in program history for games played (125), and assuming he enters the CAA quarterfinal next Saturday at Richmond Coliseum, will join John Vaughan and Gabe Norwood for the third-most appearances.
But Birdsong has not taken a common path to the final stage of his career. He started 60 of 67 games as a sophomore and junior, primarily as a light-scoring power forward, but with sophomores Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison ready for full-time jobs this season, Birdsong was moved to small forward.
He possessed the athletic ability to make the transition, but his decision-making was off. As a result, his productivity never materialized and his playing time declined. After contributing five points and four rebounds in the season opener, he had a total of eight and four in the subsequent six games.
Less than a month into the season, Larranaga replaced him with junior Isaiah Tate.
"I felt things going downhill early," he said. "I was sluggish. I knew I wouldn't be able to maintain it for the season. [Leaving the starting lineup] was going to happen sooner rather than later. I accepted it before he made the decision."
Over a stretch of 13 games, Birdsong didn't appear in two contests and played less than 10 minutes seven times.
"If we were able to figure out a way that we could've gotten Lou to learn the mental aspects of that position, he would've been tremendous," Larranaga said. "Lou was able to make that transformation at the defensive end, but not at the offensive end. He can pass and shoot well enough, but the decisions when to dribble, when to pass, when to shoot, when to drive, what shots to take, that was the challenging part."
Unreliable at small forward, Birdsong returned to the front line -- but behind Pearson, Morrison and freshman Kevin Foster on the depth chart.
"It was definitely hard, not having as many minutes as I am accustomed to," he said. "Whenever I felt myself maybe get down, I would re-route the energy into extra practice and extra work. I had to be ready if they needed me."
Late last month, with Pearson and Foster struggling, Larranaga needed him again. Birdsong returned to the lineup to contribute 11 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks in the first meeting with Delaware. In his next start two weeks later, he shot 5 of 6 and had 13 points against Virginia Commonwealth. In the past 10 games, he has started three and averaged 17 minutes.
"There were a lot of roles out there and I wanted to help any way I could," he said. "I know I can play defense, so that is where it all started for me in coming back. I might not know if I play 10 minutes or 20 minutes, but I am comfortable with it."
Said Larranaga: "It's really a testament to his character that, as a senior having gone from a starter to out of the rotation, he did not give up on himself or the team. Now he may only score two or three points in a game, but he may be in there when we need him most."