George Mason Fires a Warning Shot on Opening NightPosted by IRenko on November 10th, 2012
I. Renko is a DC-based correspondent for Rush the Court. You can follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Maybe Drexel will have some company at the top after all. The Dragons are the CAA’s prohibitive favorite after the conference lost VCU to the A-10, and perennial contenders George Mason and Old Dominion graduated the majority of their starting lineups. But on opening night in Fairfax, George Mason proved that despite their losses, they are poised to compete for the conference championship. The Patriots defeated visiting Virginia 63-59, their first-ever win over an ACC team in an exciting, competitive game before a near-sellout crowd at the 10,000-seat Patriot Center. While one should never read too much into a single game, the Patriots offered important, if tentative, answers to the most pressing offseason questions that will decide whether they can make a run at both Drexel and an NCAA Tournament bid.
Can Mason replace the interior presence of Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison?
For three years running, the Patriots’ starting frontcourt featured Ryan Pearson, last year’s CAA POY, and Mike Morrison. The players worked especially well together, with Morrison’s length and athleticism complementing Pearson’s skilled offensive game. While the Patriots returned a host of veteran perimeter players, the loss of Pearson and Morrison presented the team’s most pressing concern. Most of the attention on their potential replacements has focused on sophomore center Erik Copes, a former top 100 recruit who has a strong defensive presence but a still-developing offensive game. Copes, however, missed the game against Virginia, serving the first of a three-game suspension for “student-athlete conduct violations.” So the task of filling Pearson’s and Morrison’s big shoes fell primarily to two players who did not see the floor last year — redshirt junior Johnny Williams, who sat out last year’s campaign with an injury, and unheralded freshman Marko Gujanicic.Williams and Gujanicic more than stepped up to the challenge. Williams scored 11 points on 5-7 shooting, most of which came on a highly-effective, high-arc’ing jump shot. Gujancic also demonstrated a very skilled offensive game, adding six points on a pair of three-pointers and three assists. But lest you typecast the Serbian as a typical Euro big man who drifts around the perimeter trying to play like a guard, rest assured that he’s a big body who can bang down low — he led the team with seven rebounds. While both Williams and Gujanicic struggled a bit defensively, that aspect of Mason’s interior game is sure to improve when Copes returns from his suspension. In short, the Patriots look surprisingly well-poised to replace their long-time starting frontcourt and, in so doing, answer their biggest offseason question mark.
Can Sherrod Wright assert himself as the team’s go-to scorer?
After graduating Cam Long and Pearson in two consecutive years, a key question for the Patriots was whether someone on the roster could step up to be a major and primary offensive threat. Wright’s dynamic scoring ability made him the most natural heir to this role. But in two seasons that bracketed a lost year due to injury, the redshirt junior had never averaged more than 9.6 points per game in a secondary offensive role. So it remained an open question coming into the season whether he would be able to break out and lead the team offensively. He answered the call against UVA, scoring a team-high 15 points on 6-9 FG shooting, showing off both his capable jump shot and his ability to create his own offense. Wright would have notched a larger tally but for an uncharacteristically poor night from the free throw line where the career 79 percent shooter went just 1-4.
Can they cut down their turnovers?
Last year, the Patriots had a turnover rate of 22.3 percent, by far its worst offensive metric. Returning point guards Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards, in particular, struggled with their ball control, sporting turnover rates of 27.9 and 46.4 percent, respectively. As Allen conceded after the game, the Patriots “had to focus on [turnovers] because that’s what made us lose so many games last year that we should have won.” Well, so far, so good. Against Virginia, Allen finished with 5 assists and just 1 turnover, while Edwards notched 2 assists and 0 turnovers. It’s worth noting, too, that Allen’s great game didn’t just stop with his strong assist-turnover ratio. The junior point guard added 13 points, including what proved to be the game-winner. With a minute left, the game tied, and the shot clock winding down, Allen managed to drain a long-range three with a hand in his face to put Mason up for good.