George Mason's recruiting pitch for guard Mark Davis amounted to one sentence from Patriots assistant coach Bill Courtney: "You can shoot as much as you want."
"After he said that, my mind was pretty much made up," Davis said.
Courtney denies making any promises, but his boss knows better. "Bill tells everybody that," Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga said. "That's the way he played."
Promise or not, both Larranaga and Davis came into this season with no pretenses. Davis was brought in to score.
"We do give guys the green light to shoot," Larranaga said. "But the difference is we limit the green light to shots they can make. With Mark, we haven't had to limit him."
Thrust into a starting role when a heart problem ended junior Darren Tarver's career and a foot injury forced sophomore Lamar Butler to redshirt, Davis has averaged a team-high 15.9 points per game this season. That ranks seventh in the Colonial Athletic Association and is almost a quarter of George Mason's 64 points per game.
Though an avowed gunner -- he averages 14 shots per game, more than a quarter of the team's total, and makes 40 percent -- he provides a different dynamic than the rest of the team. He is George Mason's only effective slasher, a necessary component on a team with good set shooters and size but lacking athleticism.
"He's one of the best one-on-one players in the league," Towson Coach Michael Hunt said.
The bonus has been his success in Larranaga's pressure man-to-man defense, providing a gambling, high-octane counterpart to the steadier Richard Tynes, who typically draws the opposing point guard. Tynes does the dirty work, making the first pass as difficult and time-consuming as possible, while Davis swoops in for the steal and the glory. Davis averages 1.9 steals per game, second in the CAA. Davis's anticipation often yields huge dividends, as when he scored 14 points in four minutes against Towson on Jan. 11, many of them off steals. But he can also guess wrong, leaving his teammates vulnerable.
"We learned how to tell when he was going to go, and now we can cover for him," forward Jon Larranaga said.
Davis grew up with his mother in Philadelphia before moving to Springfield to live with his father for his high school years. He found modest success at Lee High School, catching the eye of Courtney, a fellow Lee alumnus. But he was overshadowed by AAU teammate SirValiant Brown during summer games, and admitted he was not close to qualifying academically for college.
"In Philly, all we'd do all day is play basketball," said Davis, in a mild slump as the fourth-seeded Patriots (16-11, 11-7) square off with No. 5 seed Delaware (14-13, 9-9) in the CAA tournament quarterfinals on Saturday in Richmond. "That's probably why I had to go to junior college."
His father, also named Mark Davis, saw Palm Beach (Fla.) Community College as an avenue to a better life, professional aspirations or not.
"Basketball opens doors," said the elder Davis, who played at Temple before a career in Europe. "Basketball did the same thing for me."
Davis earned his associate's degree, regularly playing with George Mason's players in summer league and pickup games. When Davis was thinking about signing, the Patriots' staff was ready, using a phone call from Davis's idol, Steve Francis, to help seal the deal.
As a player, Davis had improved markedly from his high school days, adding strength to his 6-foot-5 inch frame and turning into a modest (32 percent) three-point threat. He said it took until his sophomore year at Palm Beach to realize that, while streakiness is a part of his game, patience can be as well. He still tends to score in bunches, but he has cut down on the wilder shots of earlier this season.
"Actually, we didn't mind that so much," Jon Larranaga said. "We were turning the ball over so much at that point, it was better to get any shot off than none -- at least he had a chance to make it. The bottom line is that every player has a role on the team, and Mark's is to score."