George Mason Basketball: What Has Led to Mason's Success?
So far, it has been some year for the Patriots. After a rocky 2-2 start, including an embarrassing loss to FIU, many Mason fans began to think that this would be a rebuilding year for the program.
However, Paul Hewitt and his team have proven that the Patriots, while still putting in the foundation for future teams, have full intentions of doing serious damage this season. They have done just that over the past few months, posting a 16-5 record, sitting atop the CAA at the midway point at 8-1, and losing only once since December 21st.
But what has spurred this turnaround for Mason? Why have they managed to be so successful this season despite their massive losses from their NCAA Tournament team from a season ago?
Here are four reasons why this year's version of the George Mason Patriots has been successful thus far, and why I believe they will continue to be successful as the year progresses.
Whenever someone talks about the success or failure of a team, it has to start with the head coach.
After Mason's tough start, Paul Hewitt began to receive his share of critics, many of whom disagreed with his offensive systems, claimed that he could not teach defense, and questioned his management of the team in general.
However, it seems like maybe there was a method to the madness after all.
In the first few weeks of the season, Hewitt attempted instituting a fast-paced offense the likes of which Mason fans had never seen their team run before. Not only was the offense different, but it was being run by freshman and generally inexperienced players, such as Bryon Allen.
As Mason's out of conference play showed, the offense wasn't necessarily working. Once CAA play started, however, the offense noticeably switched, blending the halfcourt game that Mason's roster seems conducive to with the fast-paced offense Hewitt had the team working with for the first month.
What this has resulted in is a team that can play many different styles of offense depending on the flow of the game. If Mason needs their big men to step up, they can play the slowdown style. If they need guard play and quick points, the offense can pick up.
Hewitt has also proved that he can come up with defensive strategies. Time and time again this season, Mason has proven that their offense runs through their defense, and Hewitt has created a culture where the players are understanding that the more turnovers they create, the more points they are going to score.
Now naturally, the team has not played perfectly under Hewitt, but what I like about him is that he will be the first one to tell you that. In almost every postgame press conference, Hewitt is quick to point out the things that his team needs to improve on, even when they get lopsided victories.
It's this hunger to get better and drive to never settle that I think has helped the Patriots improve thus far, and will continue to help them strive to be a championship team.
The Depth of the Roster
Mason has prided themselves this season on having the deepest team in the CAA. Just about every player on Mason's bench has played critical minutes this season, with 10 players averaging 11 or more minutes per game. Many members of the Mason bench, such as Sherrod Wright or Erik Copes, could easily start for just about every other CAA team.
This has helped Mason in a number of different ways.
For one, strong bench play has managed to spark the Mason offense. Increased scoring production from the bench over the past month has had a major hand in helping Mason put up big numbers offensively. Even on the occasional night when Mason's stars aren't scoring, the bench has managed to step up and allowed Mason to get the win.
The depth of the Patriots has also made them nearly impossible to entirely stop on offense. With the amount of shooters and playmakers on Mason's roster, someone is going to be hot on any given night, be it Andre Cornelius, Vertrail Vaughns, Sherrod Wright, or someone else.
Outside of an abysmal shooting night against UNCW, the amount of scorers on Mason's roster has managed to give them some form of consistency on the offensive side of the ball all season.
Mason's depth has also enabled them to keep fresh legs on the court for just about the entire game. Very rarely have Mason players fouled out this year, and Hewitt has shown confidence in everybody on the roster to play key minutes, allowing Mason to play run-and-gun offense occasionally and even press for much of the game without risking major fatigue to their own players.
This has allowed the Patriots to be the fresher team as the game goes along, and has been key to many of Mason's second half runs to put away games this season.
The Emergence of the Freshmen
One of the biggest factors to Mason's incredible depth is how the freshmen have managed to immediately make an impact on the team.
With Mason's issues in the backcourt to start the season, it was obvious that Corey Edwards would have a major role with the team from the start. Considering that he is still only a freshman, Edwards has performed valiantly, averaging over 16 minutes a game, with his biggest contributions being on defense, where he's averaging 1.3 steals per game.
Edwards has struggled at times this season, particularly with his turnover rate and general freshman mistakes, but Mason fans need to remind themselves that he is only a freshman and that the only way it will get better is through more playing time, which Hewitt has been giving him.
Erik Copes was another freshman expected to do big things this season, seeing as he was the highest rated recruit in the school's history, and so far he has been everything as advertised. Despite missing the last four games due to injury, Copes has averaged a staggering 2.3 blocks per game, including his masterful seven block performance against Drexel.
Once Copes figures it out offensively, he is going to be a major force, not only in the CAA, but in the entire nation, for years to come.
Then there's Vaughn Gray. Gray was a bit of a forgotten man in the early part of the season, but after an incredible 19-point performance against JMU, "The Future," as he is now being called by his teammates, has proven that he can be a dangerous weapon for this Mason team.
Vaughn is a pure jump shooter, with all of the makings of being the next Cam Long for this Mason program, and will certainly be a player to watch as he matures.
Naturally, all of these freshman have their flaws, but their contributions have allowed Mason to move on from their losses from last season, and should give Mason fans plenty to look forward to as they gain more experience and improve over the year.
The Determination of the Seniors
On the opposite side of the spectrum from the freshman, of course, are the seniors, and they have been the lifeblood of the Patriots for this entire season so far.
When it comes to leadership, there has been no parallel to what Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison have brought to this team. These two are the clear cut emotional and physical leaders of the team. They're constantly yelling on the floor, keeping their teammates fired up throughout the game, and even when they're taking a break on the bench, they're up and cheering on their team.
Off the floor, Morrison and Pearson have been just as good, saying all the right things to the media and giving a great example to the younger players on how to act off the court and how to win. Clearly these younger players are taking notice too, as guys like Erik Copes have claimed that he has learned from the seniors how to win in certain CAA venues.
From a production standpoint, the seniors have been nothing short of amazing. Andre Cornelius has made an immediate impact since his return, both as a three-point threat and a strong perimeter defender.
Mike Morrison is averaging 10 points and seven rebounds a game, and has shown an array of new big-man moves Patriots fans have never seen from him. Coach Hewitt consistently praises Morrison's work ethic and desire to get better, and the results have been clear, particularly at the free throw line, where he is shooting the best percentage of his career.
Ryan Pearson has continued his campaign to be the CAA's player of the year, leading the team in both points and rebounds, adding in eight double doubles already this season. Pearson has shown that he can take over a game, and can be near unstoppable when he gets hot.
What has impressed me most about the seniors, however, is their sheer determination to win this year. They understand that this is their last chance to win a CAA title, and they do not want to let it slip away without a fight.
Earlier this year, the seniors talked about how badly they wanted to win at ODU before they graduated, and they went out and dominated the Monarchs on their floor. They refused to lose that game, and ended up turning in one of their best performances of the year.
It is this determination and drive that has led to Mason leading the conference at the midway point, and is the same reason why I feel Mason will be a favorite to cut down the nets in Richmond come March.