When George Mason was dumped by George Washington Dec. 8, after trailing by 22 points at halftime, it looked as if the Colonials would be the capital-area basketball team in ascendancy and that the Patriots would have a hard time of it in the Colonial Athletic Association. After all, Mason had to get used not only to a new coach, Rick Barnes, but to a new, up-tempo style of play.

The tables have turned. George Washington has struggled ever since, and George Mason (16-6, 7-2 in the CAA) is the area's hottest team, having won nine straight. More important, after American's upset of Richmond on Wednesday, the Patriots lead the CAA as they play the Spiders (6-3) tonight at Patriot Center at 8.

"I'm surprised that we've lost two games in the conference," said junior forward Kenny Sanders, who leads the CAA in scoring (21.9) and rebounding (11.4, seventh in the country). We gave one away to {UNC-} Wilmington {a 69-66 loss early in January}."

Virginia Commonwealth is the only team Mason has beaten during the streak that is head and shoulders above .500, so the Patriots' only likely path to the NCAA tournament is a championship in the conference tournament March 5-7 in Hampton, Va. But nine in a row is nine in a row, only two short of the school record; that is, to everybody except Barnes, who insists the Patriots haven't done anything yet.

George Mason's constants are still constant. At 6-foot-5, Sanders still is poison when he gets the ball in the low post, getting off the shot against much taller foes because of his great strength. His streak of 54 straight games in double figures was broken in the UNC-Wilmington loss, but he is a lock for all-CAA and leading candidate for conference player of the year.

"I'd rather play with the guy than against him," said freshman center Robert Dykes, who has given Sanders a boost around the basket. "Practice is okay, because he just beats up on you and it gets you better. But in a game situation, he makes you look bad. I've never played against someone as strong as Kenny."

But Mason is also a classic jump-shooting team. Last season, the Patriots gained a reputation for three-point shooting, and that has not changed. Senior guard Amp Davis (13.3 points a game) and senior forward Brian Miller (12) still fire the long jumper without conscience, with 197 three-point shots between them.

Miller, who had 24 points against Maryland-Baltimore County on Thursday as the Patriots made 13 of 18 treys, was misfiring earlier in the season. But Barnes told him to keep shooting, so he has. He hit six second-half three-pointers Thursday after Barnes once again told him it was all right to miss occasionally.

"A lot of players," Barnes said, "think if they miss a shot, they're coming out of the game. They start looking over their shoulder. I think it took Brian a while to realize . . . that I was serious."

Recently, Mason has also benefited from the play of sophomore guard Steve Smith and Dykes, a 23-year-old freshman. Smith, relieving Davis or junior guard Earl Moore, scored a career-high 27 points Monday against UNC-Wilmington as Mason, by 84-70, avenged the January loss. Next game, against UMBC, Smith reset his career high at 29, again off the bench. But in Barnes' system, starting is rather irrelevant -- Smith played 33 minutes against the Seahawks.

"By sitting on the bench," Smith said, "I can analyze what's going on for the first four or five minutes before I get in. In that game, I could see that we weren't shooting the ball as much as we usually do, and not penetrating as much . . . When I went in, I penetrated."

Before enrolling, Dykes completed a five-year stint in the Navy, traveling to the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. He was playing for the Bethesda Medical Center team when he caught the eye of the Patriots. He has taken over at center for Kevin McNamara, giving Sanders another boost inside.

"When the season started," Dykes said, "I couldn't get a rebound for anything. I know it's taken a lot of pressure off of Kenny. I just try to do what my role is. My role is to rebound, and if I can get a garbage bucket here or there, fine."

The inside play was the missing ingredient as Barnes, who recruited most of this year's seniors when he assisted Joe Harrington for five years, returned after serving as an assistant at Alabama and Ohio State.

"We knew," Miller said, "we had a good team coming into the season. All we needed was the inside play; we had all the guards coming back."

The major difference from the Harrington teams was Barnes going to a quicker tempo. To make sure the Patriots were in shape, he used the preseason to put the players through four-a-day workouts.

"It was tough mentally to get up for four practices," Sanders said, "especially starting at 6 in the morning."

Barnes also has convinced the players he means business in the area of discipline. Four players have been benched or held out of games for various transgressions, including Sanders for missing a curfew before the Patriots played Liberty.

"It hasn't been any major problem," Barnes said. "But I want us to have a winning program, and I think discipline is a part of it."