The Mason men were passing out rubber basketballs Wednesday as part of Dribble to Class promotion for Friday's season opener against Lafayette at EagleBank Arena.
Coach Dave Paulsen
just doesn't want the team to be giving away the Adidas composite ball as freely against the Leopards, a rival from his Patriot League days while coaching Bucknell.
He also wouldn't mind more practices before the opening weekend, which includes a Sunday game at No.16 Louisville. That matchup that will draw national attention since it's the Cards' opener and first game in 16 seasons without Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, fired last month after a recruiting scandal in the wake of an FBI investigation of college basketball.
"As a coach, I don't feel we're ready,' said Paulsen, in his third year. "We want to practice more, prepare for every scenario. But you've just got to play against other people."
The players, in contrast, are chomping at the bit. "It's going to be exciting to get back on the court," said sophomore guard Justin Kier
. "I think it could be a statement as to how everybody's is going to view us the rest of the season."
The Patriots surprised most forecasters last season with a 20-14 record (9-9 A-10), ending three consecutive years of 20-loss seasons. "Last year we proved you shouldn't overlook us," Kier said. "For our returning guys, we're ready to prove a point that even though Marquise (Moore) and Jalen (Jenkins) were very good for us last year, we're still going to be a good team."
The team lost seniors Moore, a 6-2 guard who led the A-10 in rebounding (10.9) and the team in scoring (16.9), plus post player Jenkins, who helped the team with his scoring (12.0), rebounding (6.1), passing and interior defense.
"We've got to replace Marquise and Jalen by committee," Paulsen said. "We've got to replace Marquise's defense, which is what I'm really concerned about. He was a lock-down defender."
This season the Patriots are young – the only senior is first-year walk-on Nick DiClementi
; four freshmen will log plenty of minutes. They're small, especially with the recent departure of 6-9 Daniel Relvao
, who decided to return home to Portugal for personal reasons. And the team is not deep – there are only eight scholarship players eligible this season. Redshirt-sophomore Jarred Reuter
has to sit out the season after transferring from Virginia.
"We don't have a senior on scholarship. We have four freshmen who have never played a college game," Paulsen said. "We're going to have ups and downs. You just hope that if a couple of guys are having a bad game the other seven aren't so we can be a consistent team even if there are fluctuations with individual performances.
"The big picture for me is the guys are working really hard. They're a ton of fun to coach. They're coachable. This is a good group to work with."
The Patriots, picked to finish 10th
in the 14-team A-10, have proven veterans with two juniors, point guard Otis Livingston II
(14.3 ppg), who led the A-10 in foul shooting (91.9%); and guard/forward Jaire Grayer
(11.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg). The two combined for 104 three-pointers (36.2%) last season.
Kier, who started 29 games, and Ian Boyd
will play bigger roles this season in the backcourt; freshman Javon Greene
will also help.
The Patriots will rely on three freshmen for post help with 6-7 redshirt AJ Wilson
, 6-7 Goanar Mar
and 6-8 Greg Calixte
"They're going to have to step it up early, mature, be ready for that big moment," Kier said. "This will help them grow up faster. Them coming in and getting that experience will help them. But they're also human and will struggle for a little bit just like I struggled last year and the juniors the year before that."
They'll get a baptism of fire this weekend, especially in Louisville. The program is reeling from allegations of funneling money to a recruit. Pitino is gone but there are talented players who will be backed by a raucous crowd.
"Louisville is Louisville," Livingston said. "They're a tough team regardless. I haven't thought about them. We're all focused on Lafayette.
"All of our freshmen are very talented; they learn fast; they're tough-minded individuals; they're fun to play with. I'm excited about them."
Asked if the team set goals, Livingston responded like a point guard who knows how his coach thinks: "Win games. Get better from game to game. Have great practices every practice. Just focus on the process. If we take care of the process and do the small things, the wins will come. We want to get better every day."