Don’t look now, but George Mason leads the Atlantic 10.  The 6-1 start in league play doesn’t feel like a fluke, either:  four of those six victories have come away from Eagle Bank Arena.  The most recent, Wednesday at Dayton, saw the Patriots defense hold the league’s best shooting team (Flyers are hitting 50.4% of their shots this winter) to 1-for-6 with three turnovers over the final 4:40 in a 67-63 triumph.  Defense travels in any league.  While senior Otis Livingston II still provides plenty of thrills (his last-second three helped Mason complete a comeback against Fordham), it’s Justin Kier who’s enjoying a breakthrough season:  the junior has been named A-10 player of the week twice this month.  And Kier’s doing it on both ends of the floor:  the 6-foot-4 guard leads the team in scoring, rebounding and steals while connecting on 39% of his three-pointers.  Coach Dave Paulsen has constructed a rotation and roster around his two primary weapons with capable contributors from Jared Reuters (a team-high 14 points at Dayton on 6-of-8 shooting) to Javon Greene (19 points against Rhode Island).  It’s a long way to March, but let’s enjoy what’s percolating in our backyard in Fairfax.


Alma Mater Update- the Orange followed up their win at #1 Duke by beating foes they should.  Pitt and Miami may be sub-.500 in the ACC but there are no easy outs in this conference.  But now after playing four of their first six games at home, SU has four of their next six away from the Carrier Dome.  It’s a long way to the NCAA Tournament Bubble…


Saturday’s Games:

Maryland (16-4 7-2 Big Ten) vs. Illinois (5-13, 1-6*), 12 p.m., Madison Square Garden, BTN.  This is the fourth year the conference will hold a “Super Saturday” at MSG with hoops at high noon and hockey at night.  The Terps will cough up a home game as part of the league’s continuing conquest of the Big Apple-I can already see the Big East, Atlantic 10 and even the ACC quaking in their boots.  The Illini may be just what the Terps need after Monday’s rude awakening in East Lansing:  coach Brad Underwood’s team allows the most points in the Big Ten and ranks last in rebounding margin.  Bruno Fernando will be licking his chops.


#4 Virginia (17-1, 5-1 ACC) at Notre Dame (11-8, 1-5), 1 p.m., CBS.  The Cavaliers bounced back from their loss at then-#1 Duke by blasting Wake Forest, but there are no easy outs in this conference.  And while the Fighting Irish may be tied for last, their three previous losses have been one or two-possession affairs.  They also have six-foot-nine center John Mooney, who’s the double-double machine (five in league play and 11 overall) UVa fans wish Jack Salt was (the six-foot-ten senior currently has 24 rebounds, 25 personal fouls, and 26 pieces of china broken this season).


VCU (13-6, 4-2 Atlantic 10) at Duquesne (14-5, 5-1), 2 p.m., ESPN+.  It’s a matchup of the conference’s top scoring team and the A-10’s best scoring defense.  The high-flying Dukes are coming off handing Saint Louis their first league loss of the winter- a 77-73 victory where they held the Billikens to 2-20 from three-point range and turned them over 23 times.  The Rams have suffered both of their A-10 losses away from Siegel Center, and will have issues playing catchup as they shoot under 30% from outside the arc.


American (9-9, 3-4 Patriot League$) vs. Bucknell (12-7, 6-1), 4 p.m.  The Eagles ended a three game losing streak with their first road conference victory of the season at Boston University, completing a sweep of the Terriers.  Sa’eed Nelson scored 26 points Wednesday–and he’s been the barometer in league play as the junior is averaging 27 points on 64% shooting in Patriot League wins while netting 20 points on 47% in AU’s conference defeats.  The Bison once again stand atop the conference and bring the one-two scoring punch of Nate Sestina and Kimbal Mackenzie to Bender Arena.


Richmond (7-12, 1-5 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Bonaventure (7-12, 3-3), 6 p.m., ESPN+.  If the Spiders are going to climb out of the bottom tier of the conference they’re going to have to use Robins Center to their advantage–they haven’t won at home since December 5 against what was then a winless Coppin State.  Two causes for confidence one-third of the way through the league season?  Offensive efficiency (they lead the A-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio) and the idea that sophomore Grant Golden (24 points against St. Joe’s last weekend) is going to continue to build on solid efforts.


George Washington (6-13, 2-4 Atlantic 10) at George Mason (12-8, 6-1), 7 p.m., ESPN+.  Consecutive losses to Duquesne and Davidson drop GW below .500 in the league.  The good news for coach Maurice Joseph is that his team enters the Mid-Atlantic wing of its A-10 slate:  in addition to a pair of home games they travel to nearby Richmond and Fairfax over the next two weeks.  The bad news is that 19 games into their season the Colonials rank last in the conference in scoring, are second to last in rebounding margin and are third to last in turnover margin.  Cause for confidence entering the weekend:  GW is 9-1 against GMU since they joined the conference.


Howard (8-12, 2-3 MEAC) vs. Delaware State (3-16, 0-6).  The Bison lost to Harvard Monday despite coach Kevin Nickelberry wearing a red suit;  as one who has worn a red suit in the past (although the suit isn’t technically mine) I certainly know the power of said threads and wonder why they weren’t saved for a conference game.  R.J. Cole and company do catch a breather this weekend before facing league-leading Norfolk State:  the Hornets and Monday’s foe Maryland-Eastern Shore are a combined 1-11 in the MEAC.  Expect plenty of fireworks, as the two schools rank in the bottom 30 of Division I in points allowed this season.


#9 Virginia Tech (15-3, 4-2 ACC) vs. Syracuse (*13-5, 4-1*), 8 p.m., ESPN.  Every team in the ACC is going to have at least one off-night.  For example, the Orange lost by double digits at home to Georgia Tech a few weeks ago.  The Hokies have had to deal with a pair of road catastrophes, and even though Virginia and North Carolina are both top 20 schools it would have been nice to have landed within shouting distance of either team.  Coach Buzz Williams’ team is the best in the conference at shooting and from three-point range;  let’s see how they fare against SU’s vaunted 2-3 zone.


Sunday’s Game:

Georgetown (12-7, 2-3 Big East) at St. John’s (15-4, 3-4), 12 p.m., FOX.  How are both of these teams looking up at DePaul in the conference standings?  The previous meeting saw the Hoyas fall in overtime to the Red Storm in overtime 97-94.  That’s been the rule as opposed to the exception as coach Patrick Ewing’s team is last in the conference in scoring defense.  Shamorie Ponds scored 37 points in the January meeting-and that wasn’t an isolated incident:  the junior averaged 26 points in three games against the Hoyas last winter.  Georgetown will have Mac McClung on the floor:  the freshman has been averaging 17 points on 51% shooting since coming back from an ankle injury.