WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – During his first two years at George Mason, coach Paul Hewitt’s frustration was in not receiving a postseason bid at 24-9 in 2011-12 and with having to settle for a spot in the CBI last March after a 17-13 regular season.
This season has been, as they say, a whole ‘nother animal. This past Sunday’s 66-58 defeat at George Washington this past Sunday dropped the Patriots to 10-18 overall, 3-11 in their Atlantic 10 conference debut following 28 years in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Trying to avoid finishing in the cellar is far from standard operating procedure for the 50-year-old Hewitt, who directed Siena and Georgia Tech to the NCAA Tournament six times during his first 13 season in command, including a berth in the 2004 national championship game.
“It’s been a frustrating year,” Hewitt said with a sarcastic chuckle after a second single-digit loss to the Colonials this winter. “Our guys have given us great effort. Every coach in the country can talk about games that got away, but I think we’re in a special category [because] so many games have gotten away from us this year. You’re frustrated with the results, but these guys play hard for us. They come back no matter what’s happening so that tends to lower your frustration level.”
Hewitt can only imagine what might have been in the A-10 when he considers the Patriots’ 2-8 record in conference games decided by fewer than 10 points. Mason did stun Massachusetts on the road on Feb. 12, but previously blew a five-point lead in the final 42 seconds and lost to the nationally-ranked Minutemen 88-87 and also took No. 17 St. Louis to overtime twice before falling 87-81 and 89-85. But showing that they’re equal opportunity givers, the Patriots also lost to A-10 lightweights Rhode Island 71-69 in overtime and Fordham 76-70.
All of this losing has come after Mason started 4-0 for just the second time in its 36 seasons and after senior guard Bryon Allen said back in preseason, “It’s a step up from the CAA, but we can hold our own.”
Instead, the Patriots have been left holding the cigar after it explodes. Losing burly senior forward Jonathan Arledge to a season-ending back injury in November made Mason even more reliant on Allen (15.7 points per game) and fellow senior guard Sherrod Wright (15.5).
Allen, who topped career 1,000 points in the GW game, and Wright, who’s ninth on Mason’s career scoring chart, combined for 30 points at Smith Center. No other Patriot scored more than seven while the Colonials had four players in double figures.
Reserve guard Patrick Holloway (8.8) is next on Mason’s scoring list with red-shirt freshman forward Jalen Jenkins (7.4) the leader among the big men who keep coming up small for Hewitt.
While junior Erik Copes had 12 rebounds against GW, Jenkins, senior Johnny Williams, sophomore Marko Gujanicic and freshman Marquise Moore combined for just 11 in 71 minutes. The smaller Colonials out-rebounded the Patriots 39-34.
“I was disappointed with how they got us on the boards,” Hewitt said. “At the end of the day, the eight-point margin is like three or four offensive rebounds that [we didn’t get] and that’s supposed to be our strength. After [we cut the lead to] 41-39, they had [three] putbacks. You can’t allow second shots like that. A simple box-out and we push a guy in the back and commit a foul. We’re just not doing the competitive things we need to do … We can certainly do a better job of rebounding down the stretch. In my mind, that was the big difference in the game.”
Hewitt was also disappointed that his players, who were coming off a sparkling victory over Richmond, didn’t deliver a similar effort at GW.
“[Saturday] in the film session we talked at length about playing with a great deal of energy,” Hewitt explained. “[The Colonials are] very good. They run their stuff well. [So] we had to be disruptive with our energy level. We did a decent job in the first half. In the second half, we did nothing until [junior guard Corey Edwards] … came off the bench and gave us a huge lift, really pressured the ball, took a couple of charges, showed some fight to get us back in the game.”
Barring a totally unexpected run through the A-10 Tournament, Mason’s season will end next week and Hewitt will have his fifth losing record in nine years.
Maybe he can take heart from 2001-02, his only sub-.500 campaign (15-16) during his first eight seasons. Just two years later, Georgia Tech was playing for the national title. Or he can look at GW which was 10-21 in 2011-12 and is now 21-7 and a near-lock for the NCAAs. Things can change fast in college hoops these days.
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.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.