After five weeks monitoring George Mason men’s basketball team practices and scrimmages, Dave Paulsen reached this conclusion:
“When we are good, we are pretty good,” the new coach said. “And when we are bad, we are pretty bad.”
Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in between for the Patriots, who are seeking to recover from consecutive 20-loss seasons under Paul Hewitt and a subsequent roster shake-up.
After seven years at Bucknell, Paulsen faces a hefty task in Fairfax. On the 10th anniversary of the program’s Final Four season, the Patriots are picked to finish next to last in the Atlantic 10 — the same position where they settled the past two campaigns before swift elimination in the conference tournament.
Athletic Director Brad Edwards is not demanding a one-winter metamorphosis. This project, both he and Paulsen acknowledge, will require patience.
“It takes two to three years to really start to take hold,” Edwards said. “Immediately, it should show up in effort and intensity on the court.”
Paulsen is hoping his demanding brand of basketball will help compensate for roster limitations.
“From the start, fans will see a team that plays with a lot of energy, passion, cohesiveness and resolve,” Paulsen said. “If they don’t, they might see their coach wheeled off on a stretcher.”
Jokes aside, he continued: “I would be shocked if that’s not the immediate outcome. People will say, ‘That was a team that really fought and is worth supporting.’ How quickly all the pieces fall together, that is hard to predict.”
There is, at the very least, an air of freshness around the program after two winters of malaise. Patriot Center is now called EagleBank Arena. A new court was installed last week. The sound system was upgraded.
As part of a “Mason” branding initiative, “George” was dropped from the uniforms. The university signed a long-term deal with Adidas. Six freshmen arrived.
And then there is Paulsen, who won the Division III championship at Williams College in 2003 and guided Bucknell to the NCAA tournament twice and the NIT twice. After firing Hewitt with one year left on his contract, George Mason signed Paulsen, 51, to a five-year deal worth $700,000 annually.
While the long-term aim is to return to national prominence — since the Final Four run, the Patriots have won one NCAA tournament game in just two appearances — the immediate goal is to put the program back on course.
Paulsen’s starting point is behind most, if not all, of the other 13 teams in the Atlantic 10. Isaiah Jackson and Trey Porter transferred to Providence and Old Dominion, respectively. Top recruit Ahmad Gilbert changed his mind and signed with Minnesota.
Reserve Eric Lockett headed to junior college. Therence Mayimba was declared ineligible by the NCAA after remaining in limbo all of last season.
With only two experienced back-court players, Patrick Holloway and Marquise Moore, Paulsen will implement freshmen right away. Otis Livingston, a 5-foot-11 point guard from Linden, N.J., is pushing Moore for the starting job. Jaire Grayer, son of 10-year NBA player Jeff Grayer, is vying for playing time on the wing.
Paulsen is deeper in the front court. Shevon Thompson, a 6-11 senior, could have left for a major program last spring but decided to stay. He was fifth in the nation in rebounding last season with an 11.3 average — he had 15 or more eight times — and contributed 12.5 points on 55.5 percent shooting.
The Jamaican-born center remains a work in progress, susceptible to turnovers under duress. But Paulsen said Thompson has “become more patient when he catches the ball. He is trusting his teammates when he kicks it out, and they are throwing it back into him.”
Danny Dixon, a 6-10 freshman from Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., has shown promise and 6-7 junior Jalen Jenkins brings experience and versatility.
As the team adapts to his style, Paulsen hopes to tame the wild fluctuations in performance.
“It’s significantly better since we started practice, but there is significant room to grow,” he said. “We’ll be playing great in practice and then, whether it’s fatigue or frustration or lack of concentration, when it goes bad, it goes really bad. Probably as extreme as any team I have been around.”
The Patriots are also trying to kick old habits.
“The same things that haunted previous teams are still rearing their ugly heads in terms of turnovers, fouls,” Paulsen said. “If we can clean it up, that will have a significant impact. Mixed results up to this point.”
Edwards, the former Washington Redskins defensive back in his second year at the university, has placed full trust in the new coach.
“Dave coaches a lot like my style: high-energy, high-level, high-competitive practices but laced with a lot of layered and progressive teaching,” he said.
“My message [to fans] has been that you should see a high-quality effort. How many wins that will translate into, I don’t know. They are going to be up and down for a while.”