by David Elfin

Virginia Commonwealth is no longer a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, but the members of George Mason’s men’s basketball team can’t forget their last loss to the Rams even if they try.

That 74-64 defeat in the CAA Tournament semifinals which kept the Patriots from playing for a spot in the NCAAs has been memorialized by Mason coach Paul Hewitt. He gave his players a card to carry in their wallets that says simply: 32-4. That was the lopsided margin by which they trailed VCU before storming back to make the score respectable.

“That game sticks with me all the time,” said tri-captain Sherrod Wright, who had beaten the Rams with a three-pointer at the buzzer in their previous matchup in Fairfax. “It showed us that you have to always work hard, be focused and be intense, no matter what.”

Six games into this season, minus CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson and fellow three-year critical starter Mike Morrison, Hewitt is pleased with his virtually senior-less team’s intensity on the defensive end but not so happy with its focus when it has the basketball.

“We have a much better feel for what our defensive principles are,” said the lanky Hewitt, who took over at Mason in May 2011 after longtime coach Jim Larranaga, the architect of the unbelievable run to the 2006 Final Four, left for Miami. “We’re starting to pick up the nuances. Offensively, we’re emphasizing throwing the ball inside [because] we have more depth in the frontcourt, but we’re going in fits and starts. Some games we move the ball well and shoot the ball well. In others, we don’t make the extra pass, don’t take good shots.”

Still, Hewitt, who guided Georgia Tech to the 2004 NCAA Championship Game, admitted that if he had to choose, “you’d rather have your defense going.”

So far, Mason (4-2), which visits Rhode Island (1-5) tonight before facing Maryland in the BB&T Classic on Sunday at Verizon Center, is averaging just 60.3 points but is holding its foes to a .375 shooting percentage. That includes a .404 performance by Virginia in the opener, a 63-59 Mason victory, the first by the Patriots in eight matchups with the Cavaliers of the high and mighty ACC.

“We were both missing some pieces and we gritted it out and got the win,” said red-short junior Wright, who opened the game with a three-pointer, a shot that junior backcourt mate Bryon Allen matched for the winning basket with a minute left. “That game showed that a lot of hard work paid off, on and off the court.”

While little-used backup junior guard Paris Bennett is a tri-captain because he’s so smart and vocal and junior guard Vertrail Vaughns is also a designated leader because of his work ethic and willingness to accept a demotion from 2011-12 starter to sixth man, Hewitt has asked Wright to make an even bigger change.

“Coach told me I have to step up … be a positive role model, on and off the court,” said Wright, who leads the Patriots with 15.7 points per game and is tied with junior center Erik Copes as the No. 2 rebounder behind sophomore power forward Johnny Williams. “I’m not usually very vocal. I’m still learning what I need to do to be a leader, but I’m enjoying every last minute of it. It’s a different role for me on the court, too. I’m not used to being the main guy, the one who gets that big stop or that big rebound. I’m more aggressive than I was last year.”

That’s true for the Patriots as a group. A record-tying Patriot Center crowd appreciated that effort against UVa and the excitement will surely keep building in Fairfax if Mason can beat Maryland.

“It’s a very important game,” said Hewitt, whose team’s losses have come at Bucknell and to New Mexico in the Virgin Islands despite owning a 5-point lead with just 17 seconds remaining. “If we’re able to be competitive with Maryland and Virginia, it definitely helps recruiting.”

With defending champion VCU gone to the Atlantic 10, runnerup Drexel is the CAA favorite with Delaware forecast for second and Mason third. However, the Patriots believe that they can go further than last year’s team which went 24-8, 15-4 against CAA foes before the crushing loss to VCU.

“At a lot of universities, it would’ve been a good season, but for us, it wasn’t,” Bennett said. “With Ryan and Mike gone, we’re a different team. Our offense ran through Ryan last year. Now we have a whole roster full of guys that can step up and make plays. When coach throws in another set of five guys, there shouldn’t be a beat missed.”

The Patriots are more seasoned outside and deeper inside with three big additions: Williams, who red-shirted last year;. Seton Hall transfer Anali Okoloji; and Serbian freshman Marko Gujanicic.

“With that depth, we’re going to be a better team,” Wright said. “We’ve got still things we’ve gotta learn, like every team does early in the season, but we can make a lot of noise as long as we stay focused and stay hungry.”

A year out of postseason national play will make a team hungry.

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 two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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