Friday, November 28, 2014

Manhattan/George Mason Preview

Paul Hewitt and George Mason take on Manhattan hoping to right ship after 1-4 start. (Photo courtesy of Newsday)

At 1-3 on the young season, Manhattan's record may not be as gaudy as some expected, but in the Jaspers' defense, three of their first four contests have been played against reigning postseason participants, which only underscores the high ceiling that Steve Masiello projects his team to achieve as the season progresses.

Next up for Manhattan is a 1-4 George Mason team that is hoping to atone for a last-place showing in last week's Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where the Patriots lost each of their three games, the last of which a one-point setback to College of Charleston. In the absence of Bryon Allen and Mount Vernon native Sherrod Wright, junior sharpshooter Patrick Holloway has picked up the offensive slack for Paul Hewitt, who seems to have tapped into an interior gold mine with junior college transfer Shevon Thompson, a 6-11 junior center that has amassed 58 points and just as many rebounds in George Mason's five contests to date.

Sophomores Jalen Jenkins and Marquise Moore, the latter a former Hofstra commit, offer promise and potential for the beleaguered Hewitt, who has entered his fourth season in Fairfax on the hot seat. Jenkins and Moore, as well as Hewitt's future, were two of the things we asked Alan Kelly of in the latest of our pregame question and answer sessions:

Jaden Daly: With Bryon Allen and Sherrod Wright gone, who are the Patriots turning to in the backcourt, and how far along is the replacement process?

Alan Kelly: For those who don’t know, the Patriots lost 31 points per game from the graduation of those two senior guards. Junior Patrick Holloway has been the lone bright spot in the backcourt thus far, averaging 15.6 points. However, with no other consistent threats on the perimeter, teams have already adjusted, and Holloway is double-teamed even before he touches the ball. Some games this limits his scoring attempts, and other games, like against New Mexico, he rushes his shots and ends up shooting 3-17 and 1-11 from long range. 

Senior Vaughn Gray got a lot of the available minutes in the first three games, but still hasn’t recaptured the promise he showed in his freshman year. He only played four minutes total in the final two games in Puerto Rico, which is disappointing. On paper, he seems like the guy best suited to be the second perimeter scoring option alongside Holloway.

Junior Georgia Tech transfer Julian Royal was supposed to offer a scoring touch, but he’s shown exactly as much rust as you might expect for a guy who barely played two years ago for the Yellow Jackets, sat out last season after transferring to Mason, and missed significant time this preseason with a finger injury.

That leaves the freshman class, and relying on freshman for scoring isn’t a good place to be, no matter how good those freshmen are. Isaiah Jackson and Eric Lockett look like good pieces for the future, but neither is a major scoring contributor at this point. The 6’6” Jackson’s main task is to provide a taller option at point guard, and Lockett, coming off knee surgery, has looked like he needs more time to adjust to the speed of the college game. Mason’s top incoming freshman, Therence Mayimba, was expected to step in and provide another scoring option right away, but the native of Gabon has yet to receive initial eligibility clearance from the NCAA.

Defensively, Marquise Moore and Corey Edwards have been major contributors on the perimeter, and Paul Hewitt has even used the two together on the floor, or as a 2 guard with Isaiah Jackson running the point. This boosts the team’s defensive intensity and ball security and control, but it hasn’t helped an already woeful offense. 

The plan from the beginning of the year for Hewitt and his staff has been to rely much more heavily on the forwards to score the ball in the paint, and to put two guys in the box instead of just one, but that hasn’t worked very well either, because the defense does not fear Mason’s perimeter shooters, and everyone collapses as soon as the ball is passed into the post.

JD: Erik Copes has been an enigma more often than not, and Paul Hewitt has been vocal about him living up to the hype as a senior. Is this the year he finally breaks through?

AK: At this point, I would have to say no, until proven otherwise. Copes played just 13 minutes in the opener against Cornell, scoring 1 point, before suffering a left shoulder injury, and he has missed Mason’s last four games with the injury. This has to be a huge disappointment to the coaching staff and to Copes himself. By all accounts, he was finally healthy for the first time in three years and had done all the offseason work that could be expected of him, dropping as much as 45 pounds and then adding muscle to his leaner frame. He’d also managed to stay out of trouble off the court, and avoided a season-beginning suspension for the first time in three years. But all of that hard work won’t mean anything if he can’t stay healthy. The school has not provided any specifics on Copes’ injury or how long he is expected to be out.

In his absence, newcomers Shevon Thompson (a 6’11” JUCO transfer) and Trey Porter (a 6’10” freshman) have filled in admirably. Thompson is averaging 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds for the season and set a Puerto Rico Tip-Off single game record with 21 points and 19 rebounds in the loss to New Mexico. Even if Copes comes back now, Thompson has to be the starter. Meanwhile, Porter has averaged 7 points and 3 rebounds in 15 minutes, has played solid post defense, and leads the team in blocks with 5.

JD: Last year, George Mason's biggest keys were defensive rotations and shooting percentages. Have the emphasis on either or both of those changed?

AK: I actually don’t see the defense as one of the big issues right now. The defense has been passable (holding their opponent under 70 points in all but one game), while the offense has been a trainwreck, both in getting shots, and in making them. Even free throw shooting is an issue right now. As a team, the Patriots are shooting 59.3% from the charity stripe. Moore, Holloway, Edwards, and freshman center Trey Porter are a combined 41-58 while the rest of the team is shooting just 29-60.

The big key for Mason is to get good scoring chances. They need to limit turnovers, and then to take and make smart shots. They need to play an inside-out game and utilize their frontcourt depth in a way that last year’s team often didn’t have to do. They need made baskets. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but it’s been a struggle so far. The Patriots’ offense is 290th in the country at 61.2 points per game.

JD: Jalen Jenkins and Marquise Moore had impressive freshman seasons, and are now integral pieces to the Patriot puzzle. Does the offensive effort begin and end with them now as a result?

AK: The sophomores are off to disappointing starts to the season, although they’ve only played five games so it would be very unfair to draw any long term conclusions. It’s been very easy to forget how young they are, and it’s possible they don’t yet fully realize their own importance to the team’s success.

Jenkins has found himself in frequent foul trouble, which has limited his minutes per game to 22. Some of that is due to the team’s offensive struggles, and his very physical attempts to split double-teams and force his way to the rim, resulting in a number of offensive fouls. Moore had minor surgery on his knee in the offseason, and it’s not clear whether he’s 100% or not. He’s been very disruptive on defense, and he opened the season with an 8-point, 7-assist, 6-rebound performance against Cornell, but he’s had 7 assists and 14 turnovers since, with a pair of 1-point games. If Mason is to sustain any credibility on offense this season, both sophomores need to step up and provide some help for Holloway and Thompson.

JD: Here's the obligatory Paul Hewitt job security question: How hot is his seat in Fairfax, and what does he need to do to avoid losing his job?

AK: Let’s start with the facts: George Mason is 8-24 in Paul Hewitt’s last 32 games as head coach, and his roster is now entirely composed of players that he himself recruited. Your readers can fill in their own favorite temperature metaphor here. On paper, the team has a lot of individual talent, but they look disorganized and directionless when they take the court together. Hewitt can certainly recruit, but everything that happens leading up to and on gameday, from scouting and preparation to substitutions and play calling, has to be in question. 

To be fair, he’s trying to replace some very good seniors, he has six newcomers on his roster, and some of his upperclassmen were recruited for the CAA. Fitting all those pieces together obviously takes time. But there has to be forward progress evident at some point this season. This is year four, and his team is still making some of the same fundamental mistakes that they were making in years one, two, and three. There isn’t any time for more excuses. With his contract up after next season, this coming offseason will be when Mason either extends him, or moves in a new direction.

I don’t know if wins and losses are even important at this point. The real test is whether there is some sign of a cohesive strategy being implemented and producing measurable results with the younger players. But if we are going to put a minimum win total out there, the number I circled preseason was 18 wins. Given the 1-4 start, that will be a very tall order. I personally can’t see a situation in which Hewitt is back next season, unless something big changes in the next 25 games. I hope I’m proven wrong, because Paul Hewitt is absolutely a class act, but it’s just not working out so far.

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