It doesn’t take much effort to appreciate Dave Paulsen’s challenge in his second season coaching the George Mason men’s basketball team.
The roster looks like the class roll for a mandatory math course: sophomore, sophomore, freshman, sophomore, sophomore, freshman, freshman, senior, freshman, sophomore, senior, freshman, senior, freshman.
The good news in Fairfax is that several of those second-year players logged serious minutes — and contributed to a few upsets — when Paulsen’s rebuilding project commenced last season.
Still, youth will leave the Patriots susceptible to wild performance swings.
“We’ll have some games this year, I am pretty confident we look awesome,” Paulsen said. “And within three or four days, we can come back and look like we never practiced before.”
When the season tips off Saturday at home against Towson, Paulsen plans to start four perimeter players — senior Marquise Moore and sophomores Otis Livingston II, Jaire Grayer and DeAndre Abram — along with senior forward Jalen Jenkins.
Abram and Jenkins are both 6 feet 7, creating defensive matchup problems for the Patriots in the low post but perhaps perimeter matchup issues for opponents at the other end. Jenkins is poised to raise his numbers after averaging 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds primarily coming off the bench in 2015-16.
During the 11-21 campaign, Livingston, the point guard, led the team in points (11.9), assists (3.6) and minutes (34.3) per game, as well as three-point baskets (46). Grayer (9.5 ppg) and Abram (6.6) averaged 29.5 and 20.6 minutes, respectively.
In all, Mason players were named Atlantic 10 rookie of the week six times.
“The sophomores aren’t like most sophomores,” said Moore, who averaged 11.4 points last season. “As freshmen, they were in the fire. They have experience and they should be ready. I know they will be ready.”
The regular rotation will also include freshman guards Karmari Newman, Ian Boyd and Justin Kier; freshman forward Troy Temara; and sophomore Kameron Murrell (32 games last season).
At the very least, the newcomers are interesting: Boyd turned down football offers, including one from Virginia Tech. Temara’s father was a New Zealand pro rugby player, his mother a basketball star at Syracuse and his brother plays basketball for North Texas.
“If you are a young team and you only have six or seven guys who can legitimately play, then you would really be in trouble,” said Paulsen. “We have more guys now who are legitimately capable players.”
The Patriots will play differently this season. Without 6-11 Shevon Thompson, last year’s senior centerpiece, they have broadened their offensive options and aim to play at a higher tempo. They’ll do more screening and cutting and hope to break out in transition.
Last season, if the primary option crumbled, the Patriots often would crash.
“We struggled to get to a second or third action,” Paulsen said. “I think we can do that this season and have some nuance in our game.”
Opponents will find it harder to key on one player, like they did with Thompson last season. But it also leaves a problem: “Who do you go to down the stretch?” Paulsen said. “Probably Marquise, but it depends how everyone is playing.”
Paulsen is looking to build consistency after last season’s roller coaster: an early 6-4 stretch followed by seven defeats in eight games and no back-to-back victories over the last two-plus months.
His team defeated Mississippi, Oklahoma State, Davidson and Virginia Commonwealth but lost to Colgate and Atlantic 10 bottom-dwellers Saint Louis and La Salle.
The Patriots remain very much a work in progress, assembled for the long haul. In the conference’s preseason poll, they were voted No. 12 out of 14 teams, the same place they finished last March before first-round elimination in the A-10 tournament.
The university, though, believes Paulsen has the program on the proper path and, accordingly, is providing ample time to build a conference contender. Over the summer, just 15 months after arriving from Bucknell, he received a one-year contract extension, through the 2020-21 season.
“We are definitely going in the right direction. We have definitely made progress,” Paulsen said.
“When I go for a run after practice and reflect, I think to myself, ‘We are way better.’ We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re getting there.”