Editor's note: The 2017-18 George Mason University men's basketball primer will take a look at storylines surrounding the Green & Gold heading into a season filled with potential and fresh faces. Check back throughout the preseason for features on GoMason.com.
In Division I college basketball, so much of a student-athlete's freshman year comprises of becoming comfortable with the grind of a 30+ game schedule while getting acclimated to the life of a full-time college student.
It's no surprise, then, that good players often make a big jump in productivity and effectiveness between their freshman and sophomore seasons.
For Mason sophomores Ian Boyd
and Justin Kier
, the 2017-18 campaign presents an opportunity to make the most of increased roles with the Green & Gold.
"Both of those players are so much more mature as sophomores," head coach Dave Paulsen
said. "They understand what it takes to bring energy and focus every day in practice. That's a culture shock for most freshmen – the importance of consistency. I've been pleased and impressed with both of their efforts this fall."
Each student-athlete made critical contributions to Mason's turnaround season in 2016-17.
Kier started 29 of 33 games, provided a strong presence defensively, took what the offense gave him, and often times made critical plays down the stretch to help the Patriots win their fair share of close games.
A prime example is Mason's Nov. 30 win at Northern Iowa, where the Spotswood, Va., product made a number of important front end 1-and-1 free throws and other key plays to help the Patriots become just the ninth team to ever to win a non-conference game in the McLeod Center.
Over his 33 games, Kier played 27.7 minutes per contest and averaged 5.8 points while leading the team in 3-point percentage (.386).
Boyd served as Mason's de facto sixth man in 2016-17 and often would come off the bench and provide instant offense for the Patriots. He led Mason in bench scoring (5.9 ppg) and bench minutes (19.0 mpg), and he increased his productivity to 6.9 points and 20.2 minutes in A-10 play. He proved critical in non-conference wins over James Madison and Penn State, and played well in games against some of the A-10's best teams, including Dayton and VCU.
Once the offseason began, each player took approaches to their summer regimens which have made beneficial improvements to their overall games heading into this season.
For Kier, that's meant developing into a more complete player and embracing some of the tasks often executed by All-A-10 guard Marquise Moore
"Justin had a great spring and summer," Paulsen said. "You could tell in the way he attacked things that he was intent on becoming a really good player. His commitment is at a high level on the court and in the weight room. [Strength & conditioning coach] Handy [Handerahan] routinely has raved about how much stronger he's getting."
Paulsen knows that on the defensive end of the floor, Kier's effort can pay big dividends for the Patriots in 2017-18.
"He's really taken a step forward," Paulsen said. "We need him to embrace the defensive stopper role that Marquise handled last year. That's an exhausting task. But he's played well during this official practice season and is embracing his identity."
Kier's summer consisted of offensive skill development during his offseason in the greater Harrisonburg area, knowing that his experience will be important this year after the departures of key contributors Jalen Jenkins
"I really have focused on attacking offensively," Kier said. "I was able to take a back seat in that area with Marquise and Otis' production in the backcourt last year. I've been trying to improve my handle, shooting ability at the 3-point line and dribble pull-ups. I want to be more aggressive and calm down offensively so I don't get too sped up."
For Boyd, the first part of his summer focused on simply taking some rest and allowing nagging injuries to subside. As the 2017-18 approaches, Boyd believes that rest, as well as treatment with athletic trainer Bekah Schmidt, has proved critical.
"My knees feel a lot better," Boyd said. "I can move more effectively on the court. My mobility is definitely what's improved the most and what feels different as compared to last year."
Boyd's skill work has centered on ball handling and passing, as well as putting in bulk reps to improve his jump shot. He's also worked with Handerahan and Mason dietician Deanna Busteed to trim body fat and increase muscle tone.
Another critical factor for Boyd is the opportunity to focus solely on basketball over the past 18 months. At Apex High School in North Carolina, Boyd also starred in football and had major interest from Virginia Tech, East Carolina and Old Dominion, among other programs.
Since enrolling at Mason, his focus is solely on basketball, which has led to a better understanding of principles and concepts.
"Having a year of college experience has definitely made things easier," Boyd said. "I know when to attack and I have a much better understanding of our plays. I can use the system as a tool for me to get my shots and get my teammates open. I've also been focusing on the little things, like getting my feet ready, where to put my hands and how to spread my fingers to improve my shot."
Paulsen has seen the hard work pay off for Boyd since in-depth team work began in September.
"Ian's been phenomenal since the start of practice," Paulsen said. "He has a chance to be a really good all-around player, because when he wants to be, he also can be a really good defender. Offensively, he can really score, get into the teeth of the defense and drive the ball to the basket. He's shooting the ball better from the 3-point line and he has the ability to put a lot of points on the board."
In addition to their basketball skills, Kier and Boyd also have looked to help Mason's crop of six freshmen get adjusted to the college game. While only sophomores, the duo are in essence upperclassmen on Mason's young team and have worked to play their part in the development of the program.
"I like being the person that they can come to if they need help," Kier said. "I think my personality fits that. Whenever they have questions, they can come to me and I can tell them what I was going through, what I was struggling with last year and how I overcame it. I try to be a big brother and give advice whenever they need help because I have the experience now."
Boyd knows one of the hardest aspects of adjusting to the college game is the defensive side of the ball. He has tried to remember what it was like for him last year and work to help the freshmen both in and out of practice, helping to explain concepts and direct them on the floor if they forget an element or get confused by a play.
The past seven months clearly have been a time of great improvement for Mason's sophomore duo. And with the season just nine days away, Kier and Boyd are excited to reap the benefits of that hard work on the court.
"We need to take those next steps to get better," Kier said. "We both know we're going to be playing a lot more this season. We're the veterans now."
2017-18 Men's Basketball Primer Archive
Oct. 2: Mason Holds First Official practice
Oct. 4: Leadership Begins at Home for Grayer
Oct. 5: EagleBank Arena to feature new center-hung video board
Oct. 12: Mason Athletics Dedicates Basketball Practice Facility
Oct. 15: Mason Madness Photo Recap
Oct. 17: Livingston II named preseason Atlantic 10 All-Conference
Oct. 20: Reuter's Redshirt - A Year of Opportunity
Oct. 24: Paulsen Receives Contract Extension Through 2021-22