George Mason's bid for the College Basketball Invitational title came up short. From a long haul perspective, the Patriots winning or losing to Santa Clara meant little. The outcome is less important than prepping for the pivotal third season under coach Paul Hewitt.
The school paid its way into the CBI not because it had designs on cutting down the nets as the Broncos oddly did following their 80-77 win in the decisive Game 3 on Friday night at the Patriot Center. The program wanted those extra games and practice sessions otherwise not available for teams sitting out any version of March Madness. The importance of the upcoming season demanded the overtime this season.
Sherrod Wright finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds while Jonathan Arledge tacked on 16 for the Patriots (22-16), who finished 4-2 in the CBI. However, the Broncos top three scorers combined for 63 points with several coming late including the go-ahead 3-pointer by Kevin Foster (24 points) inside the final two minutes.
Asked about the primary objectives during this postseason, Hewitt uttered, "Paying attention to details. You've got a one-point lead. You've got the best shooter on the floor out there. That's the one guy we can't allow to get a clean look and we did exactly what we're not supposed to do."
Several times this season, including homes losses against Northeastern and Drexel, George Mason blew a double-digit lead and eventually the game. The Patriots led the Broncos by 10 in the first half.
"It's always amazing to me how the last game of the season is a microcosm if you lose it," Hewitt said. "It's also a microcosm of your season if you win it because you corrected the things that ailed you."
That last sentiment is what this event, what the upcoming offseason and preseason work is all about. That's because next season is critical on several fronts.
* Barring any transfers, the entire current roster returns with six players entering their senior season. Included in that group, Wright and Arledge, the Patriots top two scorers, and starting guard Bryon Allen.
"We learned from this experience," said Wright behind a pair of sad eyes. "Hopefully it will carry over into next season."
Sophomore Erik Copes, the highest rated recruit in the history of the program, finished with 11 rebounds. The imposing big man flashed his sizeable interior potential in several games over the second half of the season after recovering from a lingering hip injury.
"I think as a team we grew a lot, learning to play with each other," Copes said. "As an individual, I think I saw myself play my best I saw myself play all year after my surgery."
While Hewitt only used nine players in the finale, the coach frequently would run a dozen players in an out of the lineup hockey style during the season. With 13 viable rotation options on the roster and no slots open for potential recruits, seeing one or more players transferring elsewhere would not be stunning.
* One of the CAA's founding teams, George Mason enters the 2013-14 for the first time as a member of the Atlantic 10, which will return three teams that participated in this year's NCAA Tournament.
"We're going into a tougher league, competition is going to step up," Hewitt stated.
The challenge for success in a higher-end conference becomes greater with a tougher slate of league games. More matchups against notable opponents also widen the margin for error because additional opportunities for RPI enhancing victories exist.
* The Patriots have gone consecutive seasons without reaching the NCAA Tournament or N.I.T., the two primary postseason events. Between the 1998-99 campaign and the 2010-11 season, the final one before Hewitt's arrival, the program under former coach Jim Larranaga did not go more than one season without participating in either tournament.
"Tonight is a disappointing way to end, but there are a lot of encouraging signs," Hewitt said following the season's final game. "It's a starting point - it's certainly not who we are."
The coach hopes the seeds planted during these final half-dozen games bloom into a winner next season. Some seven months from now, we'll start seeing what next season's Patriots are all about.