by David Elfin

Not that it was easy for Paul Hewitt last year, but when the former Georgia Tech coach arrived at George Mason, he inherited rising senior standouts Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison from predecessor Jim Larranaga. The Patriots went 24-9 overall and 14-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association, falling short in the conference tournament semifinals to powerful Virginia Commonwealth.

VCU left the CAA, but conference Player of the Year Pearson and Morrison are gone, too, leaving Hewitt and his senior-less team still adjusting to the absence of last year’s most reliable players.

At 14-10, 7-5, Mason has already suffered one more defeat overall and in CAA play than it did in 2011-12 with six regular season games still to play, beginning Thursday night at Drexel against whom it blew a 20-point lead and lost to at home, 58-54, on Jan. 31.

“I’m glad we have Drexel next,” said junior shooting guard Sherrod Wright, Mason’s acknowledged team leader whose 17.5 points per game are nearly two and a half times as many as his nearest teammate averages. “We’ll see where the real heart of the team is. The last time against them, we had great intensity in the first half, but we didn’t come out with the same intensity in the second half. They just outworked us. Every team has ups and downs, but we’re definitely having more than we did last year. We show flashes of being a great team and we show flashes of being a subpar team.”

Those ups and downs have likely caused some of the 49-year-old Hewitt’s hair to go gray. Mason beat Virginia and pushed Maryland hard but lost to North Carolina-Wilmington and South Florida.

“Last year we were more business-like,” Hewitt said. “This team is a little more of a head-scratcher. We’ve been so up and down, it’s driving me a little nutty, [but] I like working with these guys. Usually, practice this time of year is monotonous, but these guys have been really enthusiastic although there are times where they get a little loosey-goosey. Maybe our inexperience is showing up at bad times. Maybe we’re not handling success well. I know the potential this group has. I still feel very confident that we can finish the year strong and reach all our goals. But it is frustrating that just when you think we’re turning the corner and [sophomore center Erik Copes] is getting healthy, we have an effort like we did on Saturday.”

That would be a lethargic 79-72 home loss to Delaware. The Patriots, who hadn’t lost to the Blue Hens in Fairfax since 2001, never led after dispatching James Madison and Old Dominion with relative ease on the road in their previous two games. Mason committed only seven turnovers and gave up only eight offensive rebounds, but kept taking and missing three-point shots while Delaware kept pounding the ball inside which led to a vast disparity in free throws and a defeat.

“Last year, we played together and we played a lot of good defense,” said Copes, who battled a hip problem for nearly a year before returning to top shape last month. “We lack that at times this year. When something goes wrong, we put our heads down, like it’s over when it’s not. We have to keep fighting. I truly believe we’re better than our record. Sometimes it looks like we’re playing without any energy, without a purpose. We’re very talented, but we’re young. Absolutely, I think we’re going to be fine. We have to figure how to make a run to get to the NCAA Tournament.”

Two years ago, Mason upset Villanova in the NCAAs while VCU followed the Patriots’ stunning run to the 2006 Final Four with one of its own. But many people were surprised that the conference returned to one-bid status last March as Drexel was denied a invitation to the big dance despite a 29-7 record. Given that Northeastern (17-8, 12-1) is the only CAA team with fewer than 10 losses, next month’s conference tournament will certainly be for just one NCAA berth.

So while Hewitt is glad the Patriots face a serious test in Drexel immediately after the disappointment against Delaware, he knows that all that really matters is what happens in Richmond from March 9-11.

“You pretty much have to concede first place to Northeastern barring a collapse,” said Hewitt, whose team lost both matchups with the Huskies by double digits. “Drexel is a very important game for our momentum and our confidence, but I don’t think it means much when you get to March 9. With the depth we have, my team’s not afraid of playing three games in three days. It’s still a quality league, but it’s not as good as it was last year. The reality is that it’s a one-bid league.”

Which means that barring a three-game run in Richmond, Mason’s 2012-13 season will ultimately be about building for a better 2013-14.

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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