Paul Hewitt had won 277 games during his 14 seasons as a college basketball head coach at Siena and Georgia Tech. He had been to the national championship game, six NCAA Tournaments and two NITs. With all of that on his resume, Hewitt wasn’t eager to start over right after he was fired by the Yellow Jackets last March 13.
“I was beat up, I’m not going to kid you,” Hewitt said. “Basketball was the furthest thing from my mind. But (after) six weeks, I had had some time to get some rest and de-compress.”
So when Jim Larranaga, who had stunned the nation by guiding George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, surprised the folks in Fairfax by bolting for Miami last April 22, Hewitt was receptive about replacing him. After all, Hewitt had successfully followed the equally popular Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech.
Fast forward nearly 10 months and the “re-energized” Hewitt couldn’t be happier. His Patriots are 22-6 overall and in a three-way tie atop the Colonial Athletic Association at 14-2 after Tuesday’s resounding 62-61 victory over 2011 Final Four participant/conference co-leader/archrival VCU on sophomore guard Sherrod Wright’s 30-footer at the buzzer.
“That was a big-time victory,” the lanky 48-year-old Hewitt said yesterday in his Patriot Center office. “After that shot, all I could say was ‘Wow.’ VCU is the team that everybody talks about in our conference and rightfully so. Beating them in our first game since they went to the Final Four was really big, absolutely. Before the game, our message was, ‘Just play to the final buzzer’ and lo and behold, that ball’s in the air and the buzzer goes off.”
And then so did the players and the packed student section, giving senior forward Ryan Pearson, “one of the top five moments of my life,” en route to the post-game celebration at a campus diner.
Hewitt said that he has gotten all he has asked from his players, especially Pearson and fellow senior forward Mike Morrison, one of the top tandems in school history. Both are also set to graduate in May.
“Mike is one of the smartest big men I’ve ever coached,” Hewitt declared. “His basketball IQ is off the charts. Ryan’s as versatile a scorer as I’ve ever coached. You can put him anywhere on the court and you’re going to have a great chance to score. Those two made sure that the rest of the guys fell in line (after the coaching change). That’s what seniors who are winners are supposed to do. Those two kids are winners. It’s no coincidence that if we continue to play well that they’re going to end up as the all-time winningest class at George Mason.”
Still, Pearson and Morrison will be hard-pressed to match the heroics of the 2006 Final Four squad, but they did help upset Villanova last March in Mason’s first NCAA victory since that trip to the big dance five years earlier. In the mean time, they have another elusive goal.
“It was hard when Coach L said he was leaving … but I had another year left and this was going to be my most important year,” said Pearson, the most recognizable Patriot with his beard and heavily tattooed arms. “Coach Hewitt had a lot of experience and he’s a great coach, but he also inherited a great team with a great group of guys. Whenever you win 20 games and you’re in first place in your conference, you have to be happy, but we’re trying to win the CAA championship. We haven’t done that since we’ve been here and this is our last time around. We don’t want to leave (our NCAA bid) up to the selection committee. We want to get that automatic bid.”
Given that Mason is just 89th in the current RPI standings and VCU and tri-leader Drexel aren’t much higher, the CAA might only receive that automatic bid even though Hewitt expects two or even all three schools to be invited to the NCAAs.
“We’re not worried about the RPI,” Morrison said. “Our goal is to win the CAA Tournament. We haven’t done that yet. It’s on our bucket list before we leave. VCU going to the Final Four shows that it doesn’t matter what conference you’re from or what your record is. They really struggled early last year, but they peaked at the right time. It took some time for us to adjust to Coach Hewitt’s system, but it’s ingrained in us now. I like our chemistry. I think we’re peaking at the right time, but we’re still getting better. We haven’t peaked yet.”
The Patriots have three more games to play, the last next Saturday’s rematch at VCU, before they can officially start peaking in the CAA Tournament in two weeks.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.