There is no point in pretending otherwise: from program defections to the loss of several key graduating players, the CAA men's basketball league is not entering the upcoming season with the sexiest of mid-major reputations. Programs hoping to enhance their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes by picking up those much-needed RPI victories in conference could be left holding the NIT bag.
Clearly, Paul Hewitt did the math. In turn, George Mason's coach stacked the Patriots upcoming non-conference schedule with one resume-boosting opportunity after another.
While the Sherrod Wright-Erik Copes led Patriots are expected to remain in the regular season title mix, no CAA team outside of favorite Drexel figures to land serious national preseason attention. Perennial power Old Dominion appears headed for a transition campaign. Delaware has the look of a dark horse candidate, but the program's lack of roundball tradition makes the Blue Hens a wait and see scenario. VCU now calls the Atlantic 10 home.
Obviously, the Patriots must navigate the always-tricky conference waters in winning style, but a strong effort before CAA play tips off could make the conference tournament title not become an all-or-nothing scenario.
The Patriots have two ACC teams on their schedule, starting with the regular season and home opener against Virginia on Nov. 9. An NCAA Tournament team last season, the Tony Bennett coached Cavaliers remain formidable, but may be without starting guard Jontel Evans for the in-state meeting.
On Dec. 2, George Mason faces Maryland at the Verizon Center in the Patriots first matchup against the Terps since 2004.
Mark Turgeon's aggressive recruiting effort has the College Park program headed in the right direction, but uncertainty exists when looking at the transitioning roster. Also potentially helping Mason's cause is the game will be played on what is essentially a neutral court - Maryland fans haven't exactly packed the Verizon Center in recent years.
Other notable foes among the 12 non-conference games -- all scheduled before New Year's -- include Big East program and 2012 NCAA Tournament participant South Florida, Atlantic 10 schools Rhode Island and Richmond, Missouri Valley stalwart Northern Iowa and perennial Patriot League power Bucknell.
The true wild card in the scheduling lot comes with a beachfront view. George Mason will participate in the Paradise Jam on the island of St. Thomas November 16-19.
The three-game stint starts against Mercer. Beating the Atlantic Sun program won't offer much help from the number-crunching perspective, but with a little luck, the Patriots could leave the island with exactly that. New Mexico, another NCAA Tournament team last season, stands as potential semifinal opponent while Connecticut and Wake Forest loom on the other side of the bracket.
In a comparable scenario last season, the Patriots fell to upstart Florida International during the NIT tipoff. Rather than facing Virginia Tech, George Mason met Monmouth followed by Brown and Albany in the consolation round. That's an RPI tradeoff no bracketoligist can embrace.
Home games against Boston University and UMBC round out this season's out-of-conference matchups.
George Mason opens CAA play Jan. 3 against Northeastern then end the regular season March 2 at Delaware. Drexel comes to the Patriot Center on Jan. 31 -- the Patriots only home date in a five-game span -- before George Mason returns the favor with a trip to the City of Brotherly Love on Valentine's Day.
Putting a number on the amount of non-conference wins needed to separate themselves from the at-large pack would just be a guessing game. We can say that simply putting the Mercer, Boston and UMBC contests on the good side of the ledger is not enough.
We can also say that Hewitt's scheduling has given his squad more than a puncher's chance at being in that at-large mix. If the Patriots can deliver a few knockout blows early on and then clean up in the CAA, there's a good chance George Mason will indeed pick up some bracketology attention.