by Bobby Bancroft

When George Mason takes the court against Rhode Island at the Patriot Center on Friday night in their season-opener, there will be a familiar face missing from the sidelines.  Jim Larranaga, the program’s all-time leader in wins, left the Fairfax campus this past spring for greener pastures in the ACC with the University of Miami.

In what can be viewed as a swap with the ACC, George Mason went out and picked up Paul Hewitt, who spent the previous 11 seasons at Georgia Tech.  In that time Hewitt led the Yellow Jackets to five NCAA Tournament appearances including the 2004 National Championship game.

The good news is that Hewitt walks into a winning environment as George Mason returns three starters from a team that went 27-7 last season and beat Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before bowing to Ohio State.

The strength of the Patriots will be in their frontcourt as they welcome back CAA preseason first team selection Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison.  Joining the seniors down low will be one of the highest ranked recruits to ever sign at George Mason in Philadelphia native Erik Copes.

Hewitt’s most difficult task will be finding the right combination in the backcourt to go alongside senior Andre Cornelius.  The list of candidates includes sophomores Sherrod Wright, Vertrail Vaughns, Byron Allen and freshman Corey Edwards.  Making that job even trickier is the fact that Cornelius is suspended for the first ten games.

Best Case Scenario:  George Mason survives their first ten games without Cornelius and the senior picks up where he left off upon returning to the lineup.  The rest of the team buys into Hewitt’s up tempo style and for the first time in school history, the Patriots make consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Worst Case Scenario:  The transfer of Luke Hancock as well as the graduation of Cam Long and Isaiah Tate is too much to overcome during a coaching change and George Mason slips into the middle of the pack in the CAA.

Key Player:  Forward Ryan Pearson.  Pearson became a star last season by becoming a threat from the perimeter.  If everything goes right this season, Pearson will have a real shot at being CAA Player of the Year.

Top Newcomer:  Forward Erik Copes.  At six-foot-eight, 240 lbs, the Top-60 recruit is literally a huge signing for the Patriots.  Copes will be a starter and an impact player from opening night.

Breakout Player:  Guard Vertrail Vaughns.  In less than 10 minutes a game last year, Vaughn averaged one made three pointer per game and shot 49% for the season.  The sophomore is ready to burst onto the scene with increased playing time.

Did You Know?  George Mason has been to the NCAA Tournament six times but they are 0-4 after winning the CAA Tournament.  The Patriots made the Final Four in 2006 and the Round of 32 in2011 after receiving at-large bids.

Key Games: 

Nov 15 at Virginia Tech – This is a possible NIT Season Tip-Off second round game in Blacksburg.  It would be a great chance for the Patriots to pick up an early season resume boost.

Dec 6 at Virginia – Depending on what happens in the NIT Season Tip-Off, this may be Paul Hewitt’s only chance to register a win against a team from a BCS conference.  It would be extra special for Hewitt to pick up a quality win against a former ACC foe.

Jan 12 at Drexel – The top two teams in the CAA Preseason Poll only meet once and the upper hand has to be given to the Dragons.  Stealing a conference win on the road could go a long way towards securing the top seed in the CAA Tournament for the Patriots


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