Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fordham/George Mason Preview, Part II

Mount Vernon product Sherrod Wright returns home for Atlantic 10 tournament, as George Mason faces Fordham in opening round play-in game. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

The Atlantic 10 tournament tips off later tonight from Brooklyn's Barclays Center, with the conference's lone local representative being introduced first by virtue of their 2-14 record in league play. Fordham's opponent will be the A-10's resident rookie in George Mason, whose 4-12 conference ledger gives Paul Hewitt and the Patriots the No. 12 seed during the five-day tournament in the home of the Brooklyn Nets.

The Rams defeated the former Cinderella Patriots by the final of 76-70 on January 22nd, but have only managed one other victory the rest of the way, which came against No. 11 seed Rhode Island on February 1st. Both teams have an All-Rookie selection in the likes of Jon Severe and Jalen Jenkins, respectively; but both programs received snubs from the other all-conference honors, as both Branden Frazier and Sherrod Wright were surprisingly omitted from even the third team.

The winner of this matchup will advance to take on fifth-seeded Dayton in a 2:30 p.m. tipoff tomorrow afternoon, and should it be the Rams, we will hopefully bring Tom Blackburn of Blackburn Review back for a second round of pregame Q&A. In the meantime, however, we welcome back Alan Kelly of for the battle that will be contested in another 17 hours, and Alan was gracious enough to once again give us mounds of information on the Patriots as they enter their first A-10 tournament in a game where friend of the site and resident Hofstra guru Jerry Beach hopes that George Mason does not decide to stage a reenactment of the famous "Jaime ran up the score" game:

Jaden Daly: For starters, how much has changed since George Mason last played Fordham in January?

Alan Kelly: There's a lot that hasn't changed, but aside from the obvious, (like Mason getting their first four Atlantic 10 conference wins) one big change is that coach Paul Hewitt has shortened his player rotation. He now predominantly plays eight guys, with the other three used much more sparingly or not at all. It's unclear to me whether this has impacted results, but it is a sign of increased consistency from the top players, and that the players have better defined roles on the team. In the first half of the season, it often felt like Hewitt was experimenting and didn't know what he had yet. Now, it seems he knows what he has, and when to call on it (at least to a greater degree). An example of this is his situational use of backup point guard Corey Edwards, who had only played in one of the previous five games, but came into the second half of the GW game and provided terrific defensive energy and on-ball pressure, drawing four or five offensive fouls, and sparking a Mason comeback that fell just short.

An example of increased consistency from the starters is Sherrod Wright's play. He went into a shooting slump in early December and had consecutive games of 9 and 8 points in the two games after Fordham, but since then, he's scored fewer than 18 points just once, and has shot with the same accuracy that earned him second-team All-CAA honors a year ago.

JD: We've seen flashes of brilliance from Erik Copes in recent games, but he struggled the first time around against Fordham. Do you expect more of the same, or will Copes exploit Fordham's smaller lineup?

AK: Staying on the theme of consistency, Copes has awakened down the stretch for the Patriots. I wouldn't say he's solidly consistent quite yet, but he's a lot more reliable that he was early in the season. His resurgence was just beginning when the Rams and the Patriots met in January, but he's back to being the reliable rebounder he was at the end of last season, and if he continues that trend, he will be a big help going forward. He has also shown signs of becoming a leader on the court and in the locker room, urging his teammates to put in the necessary effort to win. Copes has 31 rebounds in his last three games, and I expect much of the same against Fordham. I don't see anyone on the Rams roster with the size to box Copes out.

JD: In your opinion, who comes into this game with more to gain/lose, and why?

AK: George Mason has the most to gain. The Patriots have two very, very good senior guards in Sherrod Wright (Mount Vernon HS) and Bryon Allen, who have suffered years of disappointment by the slimmest of margins. Wright is Mason's sixth-leading scorer all-time, (1,585) and Allen is fifth in career assists, (377) but they would be the first to tell you those statistics won't mean a lot if their careers end with a whimper on Wednesday night. Their team let golden opportunities get away from them in the CAA tournament each of the last two seasons, and they know it. Getting snubbed from the All-Conference teams will only fuel the fire. Johnny Williams, Mason's third senior, shouldn't get lost in that equation, either. He came to Mason with a lot of hype, he came up big in the NCAA tournament as a sophomore in 2011, he missed last year's CAA tournament with a concussion, and his little brother is a star freshman at Missouri. All three seniors have a lot for which to play, and not a lot of time left to make it happen. 

JD: Touching up on that, ultimately, what are George Mason's keys to victory tonight?

AK: I would watch for three things: 

- Effective defensive rotation, especially on the perimeter. They've had problems all season with collapsing into the paint and allowing wide open jumpers, while in their last game, Duquesne was able to pull four or five defenders out and get easy layups and dunks all night long. I expect Mason to focus on defense this week. 

- Front court play and foul situation. Copes and Jalen Jenkins, the frontcourt starters, are an effective combination, but their backups, Marko Gujanicic and Johnny Williams, have been very inconsistent, offensively and defensively. If Jenkins or Copes gets in foul trouble, Mason could have a big problem. 

- Shooting percentages. The Patriots have uncharacteristically shot under 40% from the field in each of the last three games. That has to change if they are going to score enough points to make up for their defensive limitations.

JD: Looking ahead, if the Patriots do win, how well do they match up with Dayton?

AK: Dayton is a terrible matchup for the Patriots. Mason lost at home to the Flyers a month ago by a score of 84-67, and they're lucky it wasn't more than that. Mason has the offensive firepower to stay with a team like Dayton, but they lack the perimeter defense to stop Dayton's plethora of outside shooters. A potential matchup with Dayton is pretty close to the worst possible draw for the Patriots.

JD: Finally, let's cut to the chase here: What is the best way to describe Paul Hewitt's situation, and will he be coaching in Fairfax next season?

AK: Paul Hewitt will get at least one more season, for a long list of reasons: Next year, he will have only his own recruits for the first time, with no leftovers, (aside from the two rising seniors whom he re-recruited) and he has four promising freshmen on the way that are much better fits for his intended style of play and system. Also, the potential buyout involved (at least $1.4 million) is far too much for Mason's risk-averse administration to swallow, and by winning four of the final eight regular season games, he has shown enough improvement to ensure job security for the time being. It's not like the Patriots haven't been competitive this season. They just haven't closed out wins like they should have.

As for his situation, I've distilled the discontent I see down to a basic, critical problem: Hewitt took over a program that was loaded with talent and primed for continued success -- not a program that needed to be rebuilt. Mason had won 27 games the previous season and was a fringe preseason Top 25 pick. However, it seems to a lot of people as if he's been treating it like a long term rebuilding project, instead of living up to the short-term expectations of continued success. While he should be building for the future at the same time, (and the future looks pretty good, if we ever get there) many people believe he has been too stubborn in trying to make the players he inherited fit his system, rather than drawing up a temporary system that his current players are actually capable of executing.

But I don't believe a problem like this is entirely on the head coach, and there's a lot of issues that I can't judge from outside the locker room. Are their compounding factors such as players who don't listen or who practice one way and play games another way? Did losing Arledge torpedo Hewitt's planned scheme for this season and leave him scrambling to adjust? And so on. The team's motivation and decision making have also been questionable all season, and neither of those are necessarily things a coach can effect. Sometimes it's just a matter of players either having it, or not having it. 

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