Top 68 Team Previews: #46 George Mason Patriots
Paul Hewitt has a chance to win a CAA title in his first year at George Mason. (Icon SMI)
By Mark Cunningham
Thursday, August 18, 2011
George Mason Patriots
Last Season: 27-7 (16-2)
Key Losses: Cam Long, Luke Hancock, Isaiah Tate
Head Coach: Paul Hewitt
PG: Andre Cornelius 5-10 Sr.
SG: Sherrod Wright 6-4 So.
SF: Ryan Pearson 6-6 Sr.
PF: Mike Morrison 6-9 Sr.
C: Erik Copes 6-8 Fr.
Key Reserves: Vertrail Vaughns 6-2 So. SG, Johnny Williams 6-8 Jr. PF, Corey Edwards 6-1 Fr. PG, Vaughn Gray 6-5 Fr. SF
Jim Larranaga left George Mason and took his talents (and three assistants) to an ACC school on South Beach. Paul Hewitt was fired from an ACC school and replaces Larranaga outside our nation's capital. Hewitt left Brian Gregory with recruiting violations at Georgia Tech, while Larranaga inherits a Miami (Fla.) program that finds itself in a mess of epic proportions. Larranaga hightailed it down to Coral Gables believing "The U" stood for "Utopia." If reports are accurate, "The U" is an abbreviation for "Unlawful." Like most professions, higher salary equates to increased stress.
The initial sting felt by Patriots fans over Coach L's loss quickly disappeared after director of athletics Tom O'Connor tabbed Hewitt as the next leader in Fairfax. When Larranaga was hired in 1997 after 11 seasons at Bowling Green, Mason supporters couldn't have fathomed hiring a coach who's experienced success in one of basketball's premier conferences. Larranaga changed the culture at the commuter school, but seemed to have some friction with the school's administration, which led to the surprising change of scenery. Seeing Shaka Smart get handsomely rewarded down in Richmond couldn't have helped matters either.
Besides losing their leading scorer from last season and first-team All-CAA member Cam Long, the Patriots will also be without the services of Luke Hancock. The 6-foot-5 forward will sit out the upcoming season after transferring to Louisville. A third-team All-CAA recipient, Hancock certainly showed Big East-potential by knocking down a dagger of a 3-pointer late in George Mason's second round NCAA tournament win over Villanova.
How does Hewitt replace Larranaga, a man whom the Patriot Center court should one day be named after? First a quick background on the 48-year old Jamaican: He guided Georgia Tech to the NCAAs five times in 11 seasons and Siena to one tourney berth in three tries. The Yellow Jackets sent 10 players to the NBA during Hewitt's tenure and lost to Connecticut in the 2004 National Title game. However, a 72-104 record in the ACC left much to be desired. Over the summer, he has been coaching the USA U19 team in the FIBA World Championships in Latvia.
Hewitt quickly gained some fans just a couple of weeks after he was introduced by bring on Roland Houston as an assistant coach. Okay, Patriot fans might be more excited because Houston's nephew, top-75 recruit Erik Copes, committed to the school shortly after his hiring. Copes had signed a letter-of-intent with George Washington but reneged on the offer after coach Karl Hobbs was fired. Houston was an assistant under Hobbs.
"I put pressure on him," Copes said of his uncle. "I called him right after I find out Coach (Karl) Hobbs was fired and asked him where we were going."
Copes, a 6-foot-8 center, could very well start immediately in front of Mason's raucous student section, the "Patriot Platoon." Copes is expected to make his presence in the paint known by racking up rebounds and blocks. If Copes is able to score further away from the basket, the Patriots will be a top-25 team all season long. Hewitt will be praised if that's the case because this is a player who wouldn't be in green and gold if Larranaga was still around.
Without question, the top returning Patriot in Fairfax is 6-foot-6 senior small forward Ryan Pearson. The New York-native was named to second-team All-CAA and led the team in rebounds. Expect 15 points nightly from Pearson and a healthy duo to form wiping the glass clean with Copes. Opponents will have many one-and-done possessions, which will give Mason an opportunity to achieve an undefeated record at Patriot Center for the third time in four seasons.
Another large part of the equation for Mason's success lies in the hands of point guard Andre Cornelius. The 5-foot-10 senior from Charlotte will be assigned the task to run Hewitt's 4-out, 1-in motion offense effectively. He won't need to score as much as Jarrett Jack did when running the point for Hewitt, but he will need to find the big men in the post.
Sherrod Wright, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard who sat out last season with a shoulder injury, will return to the Patriots this season and has a good chance to crack the starting lineup.
A spot in the NIT Season Tip-Off will give the Patriots some early competition. Wins over Florida International and Virginia Tech will likely setup a matchup with Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. A trip to Charlottesville, Va. to face U-Va. is also on the plate for early December.
Hewitt may not have the same talent to work with like he did at Georgia Tech, but navigating through the CAA will be much easier than the ACC. It won't be easy, but the Patriots have the talent to contend strongly for a CAA title and another trip to the NCAA tournament.