George Mason vs. Rhode Island: 5 Things to Watch for
It's finally basketball season again!
Tonight marks the long awaited return of George Mason basketball. The last time we saw the Patriots, they were taking a beating at the hands of Ohio State in the third Round of the NCAA Tournament in front of a pretty partisan Cleveland crowd.
Though a lot of things have changed for the Patriots, one thing always remains the same, and that's the hope and expectations that a new season brings.
George Mason tips off tonight at 7:30 p.m. against the University of Rhode Island. URI, from the A-10 conference, is coming off a respectable 20-14 season that included a victory in the first round of the CBI.
The biggest problem for URI right now will be their lack of experience, with two returning starters, 10 freshman and sophomores on the team, and the loss of their leading scorer, rebounder, and assist man, Delroy James.
Add in the transfer of Akeem Richmond to ECU, as well as coach's son Billy Baron and Andre Malone not being eligible to play until the second semester due to transfer rules, and you have a team with just as many, if not more, question marks as George Mason.
This should be a fun matchup between two teams with a lot to prove, and here are five things that fans should look for from George Mason in tonight's game.
The Starting Lineup
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When Paul Hewitt took over the Mason job and the dust settled from the transfers and freshman signings, he knew that he had three surefire starters in the returning seniors—Andre Cornelius, Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison. Everyone else was going to need to earn their starting position and prove that they can carry the team.
Then, Cornelius got into legal trouble and was suspended for the first 10 games of the season. This left a huge question mark as to who would start at the point guard position, and took away the one truly experienced hand from Mason's backcourt. Luckily, Mason has a host of options for who to use at the guard positions, including freshman Corey Edwards, sophomore Bryon Allen and redshirt sophomores Vertrail Vaughns and Sherrod Wright.
In Mason's exhibition game against Division III Lycoming, Edwards and Allen both took turns running the point, and Wright started at shooting guard (Vertrail missed the game with an ankle injury). It became apparent that although both Edwards and Allen have different styles at the point: Allen runs a more physical, slower point while Edwards is much quicker. Both were effective and viable options to start in place of Cornelius.
If you ask five fans of Mason basketball who should be the starters for the team, you'll likely get five different answers. Part of it is because Paul Hewitt has kept it pretty close to the vest who would start opening night, and part of it is because this team is just really deep and has eight or more players who could viably be starters.
Personally, I think we'll see a lineup of Allen-Vaughns-Wright-Pearson-Morrison to start the game, but we'll just have to wait and see at 7:30 who's on the court to know for sure.
Paul Hewitt's Fast Paced Offense
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Paul Hewitt made it very clear when he came to Mason that he didn't intend to tinker too much with what clearly had been working for the Patriots on the court. After all, Mason did win a school-record 27 games last season in addition to a CAA regular season title. One thing that Hewitt has been implementing though is a fast paced, transition-based offense.
At every George Mason practice, you could hear Coach Hewitt preaching one thing over and over: speed, speed, speed. Hewitt has even said that if a player has a good shot within the first seven seconds of the shot clock, they should take it.
Last season, Mason was extremely effective offensively. They averaged 73 points per game, and were 22nd in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting an impressive 53.2 percent from the field. Mason was also extremely smart with the ball, with only 11 turnovers a game, good for 20th best in the country.
Much of Mason's success last season came from their great team speed and from their transition game, particularly in the second halves of games, when their opponents started to tire while Mason ran wild, in addition to smart decision making with the basketball.
Due to their prior success in transition, I'm all for this fast paced offense and am really excited to see it in action. I keep envisioning a lot of Vertrail Vaughns 3-pointers and alley oops to Mike Morrison getting the Patriot Center all riled up.
Provided that the guys don't compromise their shot selection or make poor passes due to this faster style offense, I think that Paul Hewitt's offensive strategy is going to make Mason a real fun team to watch with the ball.
Who Will Step Up on Defense?
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Jim Larranaga made sure during his tenure at George Mason that the Patriots played defense. The master of the scramble defense, Coach L had Mason throw a mix of zone and man defenses to confuse and frustrate teams, and it was common knowledge that if you couldn't play defense well, you wouldn't see much time on the court.
Although Coach L is gone, Mason's emphasis on defense cannot leave with him. It won't be easy for Coach Hewitt and the Patriots, especially none of Mason's top three man to man defenders last year—Cam Long, Ike Tate, and Andre Cornelius—on the floor.
As David Lighty can attest, Mason's 3-point defense left something to be desired at times last year, especially when teams ran an "in-out" offense against them—where offenses work the ball into the paint before passing out to an open man for a three pointer.
For Mason to be successful tonight, as well as for the rest of the season, they need to tighten up their defense overall, particularly on the perimeter.
Fortunately, Mason has a number of strong forwards who play a physical, emotional brand of defense. Mike Morrison led the team in blocks with 1.2 blocks per game, and Erik Copes showed in Mason's exhibition game that he can be a force on the defensive boards and in the zone defense.
The key for Mason tomorrow night is to see which of the young guards is going to be willing to step up on the perimeter and find a way to contain URI's three point specialist, Nikola Malesevic.
The Return of Sherrod Wright
Last season, the Patriots were without Sherrod Wright, who, after an impressive freshman year, including a 17 point, 6 rebound effort against a strong Dayton team, missed all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery. Sherrod is healthy now, though, and that's bad news for all of Mason's opponents this season.
The big reason as to why Mason fans are so excited about Sherrod Wright is because his work ethic is unmatched. Sherrod's road to recovery last year was well documented, and his tireless efforts to get healthy again did not go unappreciated by faithful Mason fans.
Sherrod should also be a much smarter player this season than when we last saw him, not only due to his being older, but also due to his spending a year on the sidelines, watching and learning the game from a new perspective.
Wright has a strong jump shot, but honestly, I would prefer to see him slash and attack the basket more tonight than pull up and shoot. Part of this is because I wasn't overly enthused with his shooting in Mason's exhibition game—albeit it was his first real action in two seasons—but part of it is I just think he's better when he's attacking the basket, taking high percentage shots, and drawing fouls.
Mason's offense is looking for people to step up and replace the production they will miss from Cam Long, Ike Tate, Luke Hancock, and, at least temporarily, Andre Cornelius. Many Mason fans, myself included, feel that Sherrod can be an answer to a lot of those problems, and are looking for him to step up as George Mason's next big star.
The Debut of Erik Copes
Boy, am I excited for this guy.
Paul Hewitt's first major splash as Mason's new head coach was getting this guy to commit to GMU. Copes was initially committed to go to Orange Line rival George Washington, but after GW fired head coach Karl Hobbs, as well as assistant coach Roland Houston—who incidentally is Erik Copes's uncle—Copes de-committed from GW, and soon after visiting Mason's campus, signed on with the Patriots.
Later that day, Roland Houston also agreed to join Hewitt's staff as an assistant coach.
The 6-foot-8, 244-pound freshman has come to Mason with more expectations than any other freshman in school history. He was listed as the sixth best center in the class of 2012 by ESPN, and is the highest rated recruit in George Mason history.
I'll admit that I was a bit skeptical of how good Copes would be for the Patriots this season, but after seeing him in person and watching his performance in Mason's exhibition—13 points, five rebounds and a block in only 21 minutes—I'm excited for what the future will bring for this promising freshman.
Now, I understand that a Division III school is a long way from what Copes will see this season, but I'm confident that Copes will find ways to contribute for the Patriots, particularly on the boards. Copes has even gone on record saying that his favorite aspect of playing basketball is rebounding, much to Paul Hewitt's delight.
All of Mason Nation is excited to see what Copes will be able to do against a Division I opponent, and hopefully we'll all get our wish tonight against URI. With big man Johnny Williams redshirting this season after offseason shoulder surgery, it would be huge for Mason if Copes can prove to be a physical presence in the paint for the Patriots.
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Tonight should be a good test for the Patriots against a team that has had decent success in past years. It would go a long way for the team and its fans to have a strong showing at home before their huge games in Blacksburg for the Preseason NIT.
As I've said before, the keys to this game for Mason will be very similar to their keys to success in the past—strong play from the seniors, a hardworking defensive effort, and being smart with the basketball.
I predict that, with the emotion of it being Opening Day and the fact that it's in the Patriot Center, a building where the Patriots didn't lose all of last season, Mason will start off the Paul Hewitt era with a win by a comfortable margin—82-65.