George Mason seniors Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson have won 89 games during their four years, one shy of the school record. Along the way, they have captured an NCAA Tournament Game and a Colonial Athletic Association regular season title.
First-year Patriots coach Paul Hewitt has guided Georgia Tech to the Final Four, led USA Basketball’s Under-19 team in the World Championship and has been named ACC Coach of the Year.
But neither Hewitt nor his senior stars have ever cut down the nets at the end of a conference tournament. This weekend in Richmond, Mason gets another chance to do that as the third seed in the CAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for the Patriots (23-8, 14-4 CAA), if they get by the winner of tomorrow’s Georgia State-Hofstra game in Saturday’s quarterfinals, they’ll likely face second-seeded VCU the following night with a Monday date against top-seeded Drexel the probable prize for the survivor.
Not only is Richmond Coliseum less than two miles from VCU’s campus, but the Rams knocked the Patriots out of the last three CAA Tournaments and whipped them 89-77 last Saturday, 11 days after Mason prevailed at home 62-61 on Sherrod Wright’s last-second three-pointer.
“They’ve been consistently talking with the team about winning this tournament,” Hewitt said of Morrison and Pearson. “I’m sure there’ll be one last reminder before we go out on the court on Saturday night. It’s something they’ve talked about all year.”
Even though the Patriots lost to VCU in the CAA semis last year, they still joined the Rams in the NCAAs as an at-large team. However, Hewitt, who’s working on upgrading future schedules to bolster the Patriots’ RPI (currently 84th), isn’t counting on a repeat when the selection committee meets a week from Sunday even though VCU became the CAA’s second Final Four squad last March, five years after Mason made its shocking run to national glory.
“We had our chances to put ourselves in position to be a team that would get an at-large bid, but we didn’t do what we were supposed to do,” said Hewitt, whose team folded late in an upset overtime defeat Northeastern the game before its loss at VCU meaning that Saturday will be two weeks since Mason’s last victory. “We lost three or four games that we could’ve won. The system is very fair. If you’re among the best in your league, I don’t care what league you’re in, you’re going to have a great chance to get in. Playing in the CAA gives you a chance to get an at-large bid, but we just didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.”
And since Mason struggled with Georgia State at home and trailed Hofstra at halftime in both matchups, Hewitt doesn’t want anyone looking past Saturday’s game to a rubber match with VCU.
“There’s no such thing as an automatic this time of year,” Hewitt said. “In the Georgia State game and the game at Hofstra, we didn’t shoot the ball well, but we really defended. As long as we do that, I like our chances to beat anybody in our league. It’s a sign of a mature team when you’re not shooting the ball well and you still go out and defend.”
Mason played 21 games in 67 nights through last Saturday so Hewitt gave the players the next two days off before a preseason-type practice on Tuesday that focused on individual skills to emphasize the “whole new season” approach he wants for the tournament.
“I think those two days off really did a lot to energize the players,” Hewitt said. “They’re excited. The tournament is what the whole season’s all about nowadays. There was a time when you could win ‘X’ number of games, play some exciting games and everybody would be happy with your season, but now everybody judges you on whether you get to the NCAA Tournament or not. I’m very confident because we’re a very good defensive team. The two things we’ve done well all year are defend well and execute in the last four minutes and that’s what you’ve gotta do come tournament time.”
Mason hasn’t gotten it done in Richmond since Morrison and Pearson were high school seniors, but no one picked their forerunners to win the 2006 East Regional so who knows what kind of March magic remains in those green and gold uniforms?
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.