George Mason Basketball: 5 Key Questions Heading into the Season

Joe Campione@ IIIOctober 16, 2012

George Mason Basketball: 5 Key Questions Heading into the Season

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    The CAA's Media Day is upon us, and once again, George Mason is one of the headliners.

    The Patriots, thanks in part to the conference's new deal with NBC Sports, received ten nationally televised games (with the potential for two more per the Paradise Jam), had junior Sherrod Wright named to the All-CAA Second Team and were picked to finish third in the preseason poll.

    As for my comments on being picked to finish third, it's hard to take too much stock in a preseason poll, but third seems as good a place as any, seeing as I outlined last week why Delaware and Drexel, picked Nos. 2 and 1, respectively, are going to be very strong teams this year.

    Plus, with only seven teams eligible for the CAA Tournament, the only team who will get a bye this season will be the number one seed, meaning that, in all honesty, seeds two through seven are all in the same boat anyway.

    But enough of what we do know, because where's the fun in that? Let's talk about the great unknowns of George Mason basketball this season.

    Here are your top five questions heading into the 2012-13 season for the George Mason Patriots.

#5: How Has the Backcourt Improved?

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    This may be the biggest question for the Patriots in terms of player development and may be the thing that decides if Mason will be an average team or a great team.

    Last year, guard play for the Patriots ran hot and cold. Led by Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards, who combined what a whopping 5.8 minutes per game of college experience heading into last season, George Mason averaged 15 turnovers per game.

    The turnover problem was out of control from early in the season, and especially as the year started to go along, particularly against a high-pressure defense like VCU, it began to cost Mason games.

    Last season wasn't all bad for the Patriots guards, however, as both of them showed flashes of brilliance, both offensively and defensively, and even were responsible for Mason's victory over Georgia State in the CAA Tournament.

    Really, I chalked up the struggles of the guards to inexperience. Clearly there's talent there, but the speed of the college game, the new offense from a new coach and the demands to do so much despite so little previous time on the floor set up the guards for massive growing pains.

    Luckily, both Allen and Edwards now have had a full season in the Paul Hewitt offense and know what is expected of them this year. Hewitt has also put a major emphasis on reducing the turnovers, and I think that you'll see this emphasis pay dividends as the season rolls along.

    Inconsistent guard play lost Mason a few games last year, but if these guys have progressed as much as Mason fans hoped they have, they may end up winning them a lot more games in the long run.

#2: Who Makes Up for the Scoring the Seniors Did?

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    The departures of Andre Cornelius, Mike Morrison and especially last year's CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson left some major holes for Mason to fill, both off the court and on the scoreboard.

    It's hard to overstate what the seniors did last year for this team. Cornelius, Morrison and Pearson combined to score 33.5 points per game. Considering that Mason averaged 70 points per game last year, we're talking about replacing almost half the offensive production.

    It may sound like a daunting task, but this isn't the first time Mason has had to make up a large amount of points.In fact, just last year, Mason had to find a way to make up 32.2 points per game after the departures of Cam Long, Ike Tate and Luke Hancock.

    There's no rule that only one person has to pick up the scoring slack either, and personally, I don't think that's how it's going to happen either.

    The obvious choice to take over the leading scorer position is junior Sherrod Wright, who was the third leading scorer on the team last year after Pearson and Morrison. After Wright though, I see this Mason team being much more balanced scoring wise.

    The arrival of Anali Okoloji and return of Johnny Williams will definitely help make up some points, but look for guys like Jonathan Arledge, Vertrail Vaughns and even Vaughn Gray to up their per-game averages. A few points here and a few points there from four or five different guys go a long way to making up the points lost by the seniors.

    Although Mason may not be able to replace everything the most winning class in school history brought to this team, I think that they will collectively find a way to keep scoring at a similar clip.

#3: What Can We Expect from Johnny Williams?

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    Last year, Mason lost forward/center Johnny Williams for the season with a shoulder injury. This year, the redshirt junior is back, and Mason would love for him to be a major contributor.

    The last time we saw Williams in live games was in the NCAA Tournament, going up against the likes of Villanova and Ohio State, and more than holding his own. Williams is a big physical presence down low and has a scoring touch that surpasses that of the graduated Mike Morrison or even his counterpart this season, Erik Copes.

    Williams also slimmed down considerably in his absence, which will only benefit him even more in this high tempo offense Paul Hewitt likes to run. The new physique will also help his mid-range game, which was already pretty impressive for his size, as well as his defense away from the paint.

    Obviously, every Mason fan wants Johnny Williams to come out at 100 percent to start the year, especially with the Patriots going up against so many big name teams in the early season. Although I don't think health is going to be a concern, it's also a bit unreasonable to expect Johnny Williams to be performing at his peak from the onset of the season.

    Just look at Sherrod Wright last season. Coming off missing a year with a medical redshirt, Sherrod didn't look quite himself in the early going of last season before knocking all the rust off around the midway point.

    I expect Johnny Williams to react similarly, though he may start out like a house of fire, especially with the excitement and adrenaline of being back, before some of the rust starts to show. Hopefully having a lot of big bodies around him, such as Erik Copes and Jonathan Arledge, will help ease Johnny back into competition.

    Overall, I think that Johnny Williams is going to be a big part of this season for the Patriots, but we may just need to give him a couple weeks to get back into the flow.

#4: How Much Will the Freshmen Contribute?

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    George Mason brings in two freshmen who will be on the floor this season: Patrick Holloway and Marko Gujanicic.

    Hewitt showed last year that he has no qualms about throwing the freshmen directly into the fire, so playing time won't be an issue. The question then becomes, what can we expect from these two?

    Patrick Holloway is a local guy from Paul IV High School, so already he's going to be more than comfortable with his surroundings. Holloway is noted as being an intelligent player with a good shot, but what impressed me most about his high school days was how fearless he was of the big moment.

    Marko Gujanicic is from a bit further away: Cacak, Serbia. At first glance, Gujanicic is a really physically imposing specimen, standing at 6'8" and 226 pounds. What makes Marko so scary, however, is his ability to shoot, firing at a 58 percent clip in high school, including 40 percent from three-point range. All of this is going to make Marko a matchup nightmare once CAA play starts.

    What's nice about both of these guys is their experience in high-level basketball. Sure it's not the NCAA, but Holloway played for a team who won the state title in basketball, and Gujancic recently played for Serbia's FIBA U-20 team.

    While we must remember that these two are still freshmen and that expectations have to be tempered, this is an exciting duo and will definitely be able to help Mason considerably this year. 

    Freshman mistakes are to be expected, especially in the early going, but I feel at as the season rolls along, both Holloway and Gujanicic will make their presence felt in the CAA this season.

#5: How Will Year 2 Look Different Than Year 1?

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    Really, this is the big question that will be surrounding Mason all season.

    Paul Hewitt's first season with George Mason could be seen as successful, with a 24-9 record but ultimately unfulfilling, as the Patriots failed to make the postseason. 

    Last season was really a transitional year for everybody. Paul Hewitt was coming in to a new program after being with Georgia Tech since 2000, giving George Mason their first head coach since Jim Larranaga took the position back in 1997.

    Some of the disconnects were seen early, as both Hewitt and the players were going through a feeling out process, learning what worked, what didn't, and how to mesh their different styles. Although there were some disasters in the early going, things seemed to start to click as the year progressed.

    Now we enter Year 2 of Paul Hewitt's regime. The players have had plenty of time to get used to Hewitt and his coaching style, and Hewitt has had plenty of time to get used to the players he has, and knows what they can do. 

    What this is going to translate to, I think, is a much more cohesive-looking basketball team than we saw last year. Everyone's had a full season to get on the same page, and I think that can only benefit this program.

    I would not be surprised to see Mason run a bit more uptempo offense this season, as that is the type of offense we've seen Hewitt employ in the past. The Patriots tried it a bit last year, but it just didn't ft the personnel well and the players weren't equipped for it last year. A full offseason with Hewitt and his staff should fix that problem.

    At the end of the day, Year 2 should just be more comfortable, for both the coaches and the players, which can only make George Mason that much more dangerous as they look to get back into the NCAA Tournament.