Nine of the 10 players who were on the court for at least 400 minutes last season at George Mason are back. So are coach Paul Hewitt and two of his three assistants.
And yet, the Patriots insist that this year will be very different than the disappointing 2012-13 campaign when they needed four victories in the third-tier CBI postseason tournament just to finish 22-16 a year after going 24-9.
“We had a bad season, losing home games we should have won,” said senior guard Byron Allen, Mason’s defensive stopper. “We had leads and let teams back in it. We played to the level of competition.”
The Patriots also did that during the CBI, upsetting College of Charleston on the road and knocking off Houston and Western Michigan before losing to Santa Clara in the best-of-three finals.
“There’s a level of humility to these guys that wasn’t there last year,” said Hewitt, who’s starting his third season in Fairfax. “We got a little ahead of ourselves. We had the chance to be pretty good, but we didn’t capitalize on all of our opportunities. That’s why I’m thankful for that CBI experience it showed me that we grew.”
Sherrod Wright, the leading scorer in Mason’s three-guard offense and one of its four seniors, said the chemistry is much improved since most of the Patriots spent the summer playing and working out together.
“Building better bonds with your teammates will make guys trust each other more and go harder for each other,” Wright said. “We went through our ups and downs last season. Playing in the CBI helped us because we saw [glimpses] of how we can be, how we can defend, how we can run. We played hard through the whole CBI.”
The Patriots will certainly have to play hard this season, especially up front, now that they’ve joined the more rigorous Atlantic 10 after 28 years in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“I think it’s a great move for us,” Hewitt said. “The timing is right because we have a veteran team. Athletically, I think we can run and jump with people, but it’s a bigger, stronger league.”
Six-foot-right, 260-pound senior Johnny Williams is the Patriots’ biggest man, but they don’t expect to be overmatched in a conference that sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament last year compared to the CAA’s lone entry. Mason was picked to finish 8th in the A-10.
“It’s a great conference, a conference where we can prove ourselves,” Wright said. “We’re underdogs. We’ve got everything to prove and nothing to lose. I like that they ranked us so low. I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of teams.”
Hewitt, who led Georgia Tech to five NCAAs during his 11 seasons — highlighted by the 2004 national title game — believes that Mason is capable of reaching the tournament for the first time since 2011, predecessor Jim Larranaga’s final season. The Patriots have six games against 2013 NCAA entrants, four against A-10 foes LaSalle, St. Louis and VCU, as well as dates with Iowa State and Oklahoma.
“I like the leadership we’re getting from Byron,” Hewitt said. “He has changed his whole approach to the game. He sets the table. He’s a terrific defender. Sherrod is a mature guy, a leader. We’re deep and skilled up front [where Williams and 6-9 senior Jonathan Arledge started in last Friday’s season-opening 63-60 victory over visiting American]. With the new hand-check rules, we’ll play 2-3 zone and clog the paint as much as possible. It’s going to turn games into a three-point shooting and free throw shooting contest. I think we’ll do pretty well with that.”
Wright, Serbian sophomore forward Marko Gujanicic and sophomore guard Patrick Holloway are Mason’s top shooters while juniors Erik Copes, Vaughn Gray and Anali Okoloji and red-shirt freshman Jalen Jenkins will compete with Arledge and Williams for time in the frontcourt. Junior Corey Edwards is the point guard.
“Going to the tournament is one of the best feelings in the world,” said Allen, who played in the NCAAs as a freshman as did Arledge and Williams [Wright was injured]. “People want to talk about your school everywhere you go. We got love on campus. That team wasn’t as talented or as deep as we are, but they communicated with each other very well. Everybody knew their roles. We realize this is our last shot. We can’t let no little things mess up what we got. We can’t play around with teams until the last minute and then play hard. We gotta play hard from the jump.”
If the Patriots do that consistently, they just might be a surprise team.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.