Since the end of the 1998-99 season, Ahmad Dorsett has been approached by friends and fans of the George Mason University men's basketball team who have told him how excited they are about this season. Some, said the senior guard, have gone even farther.

"There are a lot of guys getting ready to go down to the [NCAA] tournament, and the season hasn't even started yet," Dorsett said.

It does tonight, when the Patriots open their season at Toledo in a nonconference game, one of many season openers for area teams. Another is the George Washington men's team's first-round game against Indiana State in the Top of the World Classic, an eight-team event that includes Oklahoma, Texas Christian, California and Houston.

Whether George Mason does end up making plans for the NCAA tournament probably depends on one thing: how well the Patriots replace their only starter who isn't back, point guard Jason Miskiri.

Miskiri's eligibility expired after a 1998-99 season in which he was a first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association selection and the Patriots' unquestioned floor leader. In addition to averaging 15.8 points a game, his skills and speed set the tone on offense and defense. Even more important, he was the team's top offensive choice at the end of close games, and the Patriots had a lot of them last season. Power forward George Evans was the CAA player of the year, but in critical sequences, Miskiri not only started with the ball--he usually ended up with it.

In the CAA tournament final--the game that matters most for a conference that usually receives only its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament--Old Dominion whittled a 13-point deficit to one with just over a minute remaining. However, Miskiri made a three-point goal with two seconds left on the shot clock, and the Patriots went on to win, 63-58.

This season, George Mason will begin the season with 5-foot-8 junior Tremaine Price as its starting point guard. Price averaged four points and just over 13 minutes a game last season as Miskiri's primary backup, but he is a pass-first player--a sharp contrast to Miskiri, who could create and score on his own.

"Someone is going to need to step up the scoring, but not one player," Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga said. "Tremaine is not expected to score as much as Jason did. We're expecting guys like [senior forward] Keith Holdan and [junior forward] Erik Herring to step up and take over the scoring role."

Holdan, a versataile player who averaged 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season, said the early reviews on Price are good.

"The ball's moving a little better this year," he said. "The guys are getting more shots. Getting George the ball is the main focus."

Evans, a 28-year-old Gulf War veteran, led the CAA in scoring (17.2 points a game) and field goal percentage (.557) as a sophomore last season. Herring, a 6-5 swingman who Larranaga contemplated putting at point guard, is a versataile player who could pick up a lot of Miskiri's scoring responsibilities.

"Erik is going to have a breakout year," Dorsett said.

As for the expectations, the Patriots' Midnight Madness event Oct. 15 drew an estimated 3,000 people, about 1,000 more than last year, according to sports information director Jim Engelhardt.

Evans insists that the team hasn't become caught up in the hype, which includes the Patriots being picked by the CAA's coaches to win the conference. But in the next breath, when asked about his own expectations for the team, Evans increased the pressure.

"Win the national championship," he replied. "Why not? Win a lot of games, go deep in the NCAAs. That's what Gonzaga did last year."

"Our goal last year was to get there," Holdan said. "And now that we got there last year, our goal is to do a little better. [Cincinnati] was a good team, they had that name on that jersey, but now we know a little better what it's like and what it takes."