Little changed for the George Mason men's basketball team since the end of last season and yet the upcoming campaign offers all kinds of mystery. Head coach Paul Hewitt returns for his third season on the Fairfax campus. Eight of the Patriots top nine scorers are back from a team that won 22 games including 10 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Ah, the conference, therein lies the change. George Mason left the one-bid CAA for the Atlantic 10, a conference that had four teams in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. That swap offers the Patriots more access to the ultimate March Madness event, yet a more challenging path. Projections have GMU anywhere from among the A-10's top teams to placing toward the bottom of the 13-member conference.
Recently I caught up with Hewitt at the Patriot Center and discussed the challenging new conference plus his intriguing take on key members of the frontcourt. George Mason opens the season hosting American University on November 8.
CSN: Let's start with the basics. Now that you're several days into practice, how's it looking?
Paul Hewitt: "It looks good. Obviously we're practicing two weeks earlier so we don't want to burn them out. We want to be ready for November 8, not October 10. We're just trying to take our time and put things in, make sure our concepts are strong, terminology is really strong before we get moving too fast."
CSN: Erik Copes battled a hip injury last season. How is he faring physically?
Hewitt: "He's still rehabbing. He didn't do much the first few days of practice. This week we expect him to start doing more. He should be ready for the opener."
CSN: How important is the junior center's development to your season?
Hewitt: "You know, I probably leaned on him too much last year and he wasn't healthy, which probably cost us. That's not his fault but my poor judgment. The other thing is we're really deep in the frontcourt. Jalen Jenkins is a year older, bigger. Marko (Gujanicic) is a year older. Jon Arledge, J2 (Johnny Williams) is back - from January 27 on we didn't have Johnny Williams. We're really deep in the frontcourt. A guy like Erik, I think, if he's healthy, certainly his size - he was our best rebounder last season. He averaged six rebounds a game. You can't sneeze at that, but I think our depth in the frontcourt and our overall maturity is not going to put as much heat on him to be as productive. Let's 's put it this way: it's not a must for him to be productive."
CSN: Jonathan Arledge really improved as the season progressed. What do you attribute to his rapid growth?
Hewitt: "Experience. Sometimes guys play better when they don't think anybody is behind them. When J2 went down, I think (Arledge) got himself comfortable and just played. Again, that's a lesson for me. Give him a little more leeway, confidence level is higher. He's also battling an injury. He hasn't been able to get through an entire practice because his back has been bothering him. Again, we have a lot of time to get him right.
CSN: What's the next level for Arledge?
Hewitt: "The hope is he's going to be one of the best players in the league, that's the hope. He's doing things now that he wouldn't have done before. There were times when guys would come driving in and wouldn't go block the shot. Or he has a dunk around the rim and go up soft and they'd block it or he'd miss the shot. I can remember the game against Delaware last year when he just didn't finish. At the end of the year he was attacking the rim. So far in practice, even with a bad back, he's been attacking the rim really hard. I think he has a chance to be one of the best players in our league, no question."
CSN: Atlantic 10 preseason predictions for George Mason are all over the place. How do you see the program fitting in this season?
Hewitt: "Nobody can tell. We're new in the league. Can we compete? Yeah, but I always tell people - when coaches used to come in the ACC, I used to them you can play against an ACC school once in a while, but it's the cumulative effect of the night-in, night-out. We were 2-0 against A-10 teams last year, but it's the cumulative effect. If you can manage that, then you have a chance to be successful. Playing against St. Joes, UMass, Rhode Island and all those schools that have bigger stronger athletes than we're used to seeing in the CAA. Does that wear you down or do you withstand that and continue to play good basketball.
Notes: George Mason picked up its first commitment for the Class of 2014 on Sunday night as reports have swingman Erick Lockett joining the program. The three-star recruit will help with the team's depth chart as the Patriots lose senior wing guards Sherrod Wright and Bryon Allen following the 2013-14 season.