by Scott Gleeson | @ScottMGleeson
George Mason coach Paul Hewitt has become a master at taking over basketball programs.
When Hewitt first arrived on the scene at Georgia Tech in 2000, he helped revitalize the program by taking a team predicted to finish eighth in the ACC to the NCAA tournament on the way to being named the league’s Coach of the Year. A few short years later and Hewitt had Tech in the national championship game against Connecticut.
And prior to coaching Tech, he built up a Siena program, guiding the unknown mid-major team to the NCAA tournament in his second season.
“Maybe I’m a guy that needs to take over programs,” Hewitt said bashfully. “Over the years, I’ve been able to see big bumps in my first few years.”
Only this time, Hewitt is taking over a George Mason team fresh off a second round finish in the NCAA tournament and he arrives to a hoops culture that hardly needs reinvigoration. He replaces Jim Larranaga, who guided George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 before leaving to coach Miami.
Following 11 seasons at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Hewitt was dismissed and contemplated whether or not to get back into coaching. However, once he visited George Mason’s campus, Hewitt said moving to Northern Virginia came rather easy.
“I just felt like it was a tremendous opportunity for so many reasons,” said Hewitt, who coached the Team USA Under-19 team this past summer. “This is a program rich with history, a program that had been to the Final Four, a program that is used to winning. I’m just trying not to screw it up.”
So far, that mission has been accomplished. After starting the season a mediocre 7-4 with overtime losses to Florida International and Florida Atlantic, a blowout loss to Virginia and a rout by Duquesne on its home floor, the Patriots (12-4) have regrouped and caught their groove just in time for Colonial Athletic Association play.
Riding a five-game winning streak, Mason is suddenly in control of the CAA after winning its first four conference games, including the last three in six days. Perhaps the team’s most impressive win of the season came with a 61-58 decision against Georgia State, a team that’s usually a pushover in the conference.
But that wasn’t the case in the Patriots’ Jan. 7 meeting with a revamped Georgia State team led by first-year coach Ron Hunter. Picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams, the Panthers entered the contest at 11-3 and 3-0 in league play.
In a matchup between the CAA’s only two undefeated teams, Mason halted Georgia State’s 11-game winning streak by using a suffocating defense and aggressive play to counter the Panthers’ matchup, Syracuse-like zone schemes. The win gave the Patriots sole possession of first place in the league.
Georgia State, also located in Atlanta, was right in Hewitt’s backyard while coaching at Tech.
“I’ve never seen them this good. Those were some tough zone defenses,” Hewitt said. “Georgia State played extremely well. They played right through the whistle. They gave us a lesson in that. We were lucky to win the game.”
When asked what drew him to Mason the most, Hewitt didn’t hesitate.
“The talent,” he said, winking.
What he’s referring to starts and ends with the 6-6 bearded monster Ryan Pearson (18.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg), a senior who kills defenses from outside and in. He torched the College of Charleston with 35 points, on 15-25 shooting, and 14 rebounds.
“He’s a gifted, clutch scorer,” Hewitt said. “He’s a guy that you can put in a lot of different spots to score. He can drive, shoot the three, post you up. The thing about Ryan is he’s a guy that can keep you up all night…and that’s because you’re thinking about ways to get him the ball.”
But the Patriots are far from dead when Pearson isn’t dropping crazy numbers. Against Georgia State, Pearson scored 10 points — all at the charity stripe — and it was senior forward Mike Morrison notching a 14-point, 15-rebound performance that he referred to as “Ryan Pearson numbers.”
“I think we learned once we click and play well together on offense and defense and fight through toughness, we’ll be tough to beat,” Morrison said.
One reason for the Patriots’ spike in play came from the return of experienced senior guard Andre Cornelius, who was suspended for the first half of the season. He poured in 20 points to help Mason defeat William & Mary in just his third game back.
“His return means a lot to our team,” Hewitt said. “He’s another scorer, another three-point shooter, another ball handler and a great defender. He gives us more composure.”
Hewitt’s primary emphasis early on this season has been taking care of the ball, a concept Mason struggled with early on but has now seemed to have improved thanks in part to Cornelius.
Sophomore guard Vertrail Vaughns (11.6 ppg) stepped up in Cornelius’ absence and has emerged as a consistent scoring threat. He cashed in 17 points against Georgia State and has provided a nice in-and-out game with Pearson and Morrison.
Sophomore guards Bryon Allen (8.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Sherrod Wright (8.2 ppg) give the Patriots a balanced scoring attack that can fire on all cylinders in any given night.
“We all can score,” Vaughns said. “One night I’ll have a good night, the next night might be Bryon or Sherrod. One of us will get going and we just ride with it.”
Like most coaching transitions, Hewitt said the lack of continuity is troublesome. But, to his surprise, he’s had a smooth transition.
“There’s always that transition part coming in,” Hewitt said. “I just try to put an emphasis on what I expect out of kids through defense and teamwork, but more importantly I try to put an emphasis on life after college.
“It’s been a pleasant surprise. These guys lost their head coach and all the assistants. But they’ve been very, very receptive to what we’re doing. Because of the strong leadership, everything has come together quickly.”
For a league that sent three teams to the NCAA tournament last year and saw VCU go to the Final Four, it’s been considered a down year. Still, being undefeated early on in the CAA is a statement in itself. Hearing the “mid-major” tag that Mason dons, Hewitt winces.
“I think because of teams in our league, there’s not a clear line that can be used to distinguish. Now, you’re simply good or you’re not,” he said. “When I hear ‘mid-major,’ I just roll my eyes because we have a very talented, mature team.”
Next, George Mason plays Drexel, a team that has beaten VCU, in a road contest on Thursday for another CAA clash. After beating Old Dominion on its home court for the first time since 2004 and starting 4-0, Pearson said the seniors have compiled a “bucket list.”
“As seniors, we want to leave the right way,” Pearson said. “We want to do a lot of things, but a [CAA] championship, that’s our [biggest] goal.”
For the Patriots, who have won 18 consecutive regular-season games dating back to last season, there’s no taking their foot off the gas pedal.
“We’re not comfortable, we can do more,” Vaughns said. “There’s a lot more games out there. We have to take it one game at a time…If we play hard, we play strong, and we play together, it’s tough to stop us.”