George Mason ended 2012 with a non-conference loss. Defeating South Florida would have been nice, no doubt, but the real crux of the season starts now. The Patriots open 2013 with a chance for a CAA win - and to affirm their perceived standing as the team to beat.
No, Thursday's matchup (7:00 p.m., NBC Sports Network) against Northeastern does not pit the two conference frontrunners, though that's on the Huskies. After a solid and ultimately winning grind through a formidable early schedule, the Patriots (7-5) are the only team in the Colonial Athletic Association with any aspirations of receiving an at-large bid come NCAA Tournament. That's why George Mason is considered by many the conference favorite.
Oh, as for that at-large bid talk mentioned in the previous paragraph, don't count on it. The CAA looks every bit of a one-bid league and any loss (maybe even some wins) will drag down the Patriots RPI. That's why, this year more than most lately, we've now reached the schedule section that matters most - and why getting off to a quick start is vital.
Meanwhile junior guard Sherrod Wright's Player of the Year candidacy is well on its way. The CAA's fourth-leading scorer with 17.3 points per game, Wright also ranks among the top five in field goal percentage (54.1) and 3-point shooting (45.5). He enters Thursday's tilt having scored at least 20 points in four straight games, the first George Mason play to do so since Jason Miskiri in January 1999.
Finding consistent scoring alongside Wright would go a long way toward the Patriots claiming their second CAA regular season title in three seasons and first under coach Paul Hewitt. Forward Johnny Williams ranks second on the team with 7.7 points per game.
The Huskies (5-7), directed by coach Bill Coen, entered the season as a sneaky contender for the CAA regular season crown. They still might be, but current signs suggest otherwise. After opening the season 4-1, Northeastern dropped five straight games. Following a win over Central Connecticut State, the Huskies played their first true road game of the season against a .500 UAB team - and lost by 20 points.
Guards Joel Smith (16.7 points) and Jonathan Lee (15.0 ppg) pace four double-digit scorers and the Huskies 66.8 points ranks third among CAA teams. Defensively is where Coen's crew has run into troubles allowing teams to shoot 47.3 from the field, worst in the conference.
George Mason holds the all-time series lead (10-9), but dropped three of the last five, including last season's 85-82 overtime loss in Boston. Lee scored 27 points while George Mason's Bryon Allen had 10 points and a career-high 13 assists.
Despite a stunning 4-8 start to it season, Drexel remains George Mason's primary contender while William & Mary surprised with its do no harm 5-5 non-conference record. Both the Dragons and Tribe won their respective CAA openers on Wednesday.