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The ebbs and flows of a normal college basketball season have been disrupted in a year dominated by the coronavirus. Games have been canceled, practices are limited and some teams have been paused for extended periods while the rest of the CBB world presses on.
George Mason has experienced all of the above this year - as have several teams in college basketball. On Day 1 of the season, their opponents had to cancel after a positive COVID-19 test within the program. Then, shortly after George Mason had to pause activities themselves after two reported coronavirus issues within the team.
So much has happened in such a short amount of time that the Patriots have yet to find their identity this year. They've won five games but all in different fashions. Some contests were back-and-forth thrillers against teams they were expected to beat. Some saw Mason pound the paint with sophomore Josh Oduro. In other games, they've relied on their 3-point shooting and freshman Tyler Kolek to pull away and clinch the victory.
The same can be said in their losses - nothing is the same. On Saturday their loss to Dayton was their third on the year. George Mason was once down by 18, then stormed back and led late in the contest. But in the final three minutes, they only scored two points.
"[Our identity] is a little bit of flux," head coach Dave Paulsen said after the 74-65 loss to the Flyers. "One of the purposes of traditional nonconference seasons is for you to really establish your identity and to get cohesiveness."
That's hard to do during COVID. The traditional 13-game nonconference stretch turned into only six games.
It's especially been hard for Paulsen who finally was able to get all of his guys healthy (through injuries, COVID or other illnesses) and on the practice floor this week for the first time since Halloween. There were also suspensions thrown in there that included their top scorer Jordan Miller.
But with every starter from last season returning, the leash has been short on team from those on the outside of the program. It all led to a tipping point when the program lost to MEAC opponent Norfolk State the day after Christmas.
Fans were in an uproar, athletic department-affiliated accounts were publically calling out the fandom of some of their alumni. Parents of players had even taken their frustrations public on social media.
That did not fall on deaf ears for the players. They noticed. Their response was how they showed up to practice this week.
"We definitely had a sour taste in our mouths after Norfolk State and that kind of just drove us to just compete harder in practice, pay more attention to detail, be more bought-in across the board and I feel like that's just been carrying over onto the court," redshirt-senior A.J. Wilson said. "Everybody's been connected. Everybody's been more locked in, just focused and want to compete for each other."
And since the trajectory of the team is the highest, perhaps, it has been all year. The Patriots stole a double-overtime shootout at Massachusetts and played last year's conference champion close on the road.
Even if everything went according to plan during the nonconference season, those results would be right what everyone expected.
"From last week, Saturday (and the loss to Norfolk State), to this week, Saturday, we made progress and that's what we have to do is just keep getting better and learn how to close those games out. And I think we will. And I love the fight in the team," Paulsen said.
"I think this team, unfortunately, or fortunately is going to continue to evolve. Unfortunately in the sense that it's not clearly established complete roles yet. It's starting to coalesce, but from a fortunate standpoint, I think we got a chance to make significant progress as this group gets used to playing together. "
Progress will have to come on the court. There's no denying that given the strength of the Atlantic 10 this season. Is what was displayed the past two games a sign of things to come? Or is it just another hot streak? For this team at 5-3, it will take weeks of consistent play for anyone to believe the former.
But as was said in 2020 - and can be seen in the early moments of 2021 - a lot can change in a week. The sixth-year coach just hopes this past week is a stepping stone for what's next.
"If we can get everyone clicking at the same time I think we have a chance to be a pretty decent team."