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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Summer Buzz: George Mason Patriots

By Eamonn Brennan

Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: George Mason.

Paul Hewitt
New George Mason coach Paul Hewitt inherits a team with better shooters than he had at Georgia Tech.
A coach can do a lot of things to improve his team's chances to win. He can drill and prepare. He can recruit the right kind of players. He can instill values that drive those players to get better, to work as a collective, to bind together over a common cause. He can call the right kind of plays, scout opponents to a T, and put his players in position to succeed.

But a coach can't play the games. More specifically: He can't make the shots.

In his tenure at Georgia Tech, Paul Hewitt often drew the ire of Yellow Jacket fans. Were players improving up to their potential? Why weren't top prospects (like, say, Derrick Favors) as effective as previously advertised? Why did Hewitt's offenses seem to struggle? Was it tactics? Personnel? Some combination therein?

Eventually, despite a massive $7 million buyout, those questions and the losses that caused them cost Hewitt his job. But it wasn't long before Hewitt was offered a chance at redemption at George Mason, a job surprisingly vacated by the Miami-bound (ouch) Jim Larranaga. This transition presents an interesting test case: What will Hewitt do with a team that can actually shoot?

In his past three seasons in Atlanta, Hewitt's teams did not comprise gifted marksmen. From 2009-2011, Georgia Tech averaged 32.7 percent from beyond the arc. In 2011, the Yellow Jackets made just 29.9 percent of their 3s -- and ranked No. 328 in the country in doing so.

George Mason suffered no such problems. Rather, the Patriots -- a team stocked with effective 3-point shooters, veterans and newcomers alike -- were among the most accurate teams in the country from beyond the arc. As a team, they shot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc, good enough for the No. 11 rank in all of college hoops. Individually, six Patriots made 36 percent or more of their 3s, and four players averaged 40 percent or better. Larranaga's team was an offensive joy, a team full of willing passers that swung the ball around the perimeter, worked for open looks and buried their chances with ruthless efficiency.

Some of those players are now gone. Senior Cam Long, the team's leading scorer, shot 43 percent from 3. He graduated. So did Isaiah Tate, a reserve guard who made good on 28 of his 68 shots from long range. Luke Hancock, the team's third-leading scorer (and a 36 percent 3-point shooter in his own right) decided to transfer to Louisville when Larranaga left this spring. Those are significant losses in statistical production, shooting accuracy and leadership. They're not easy to overcome.

That said, Hewitt does have some marksman left over from the Larranaga era. Ryan Pearson didn't take many 3s last season, but he made 40 percent of the ones he took and was Mason's second-leading scorer in the process. But Pearson isn't a 3-point specialist. He's really a versatile, do-everything small forward, a guy who can rebound, attack the rim, draw fouls -- he drew 5.9 fouls in every 40 minutes he played in 2011 -- and, yes, hit open jumpers when the situation calls for it. Pearson posted an offensive rating of 114.0 last season. Whether that increases or decreases will have much to do with whether teammates like Vertrail Vaughns, Andre Cornelius and Mike Morrison can make up for the offensive losses Long and Hancock's absences represent.

And these are all the players Hewitt had before he even arrived on campus. (Just look at George Mason's team page on KenPom.com. There are so many good offensive players on this team, and some of them haven't even had a chance to truly shine.) As Georgia Tech fans can attest, Hewitt's true strength as a coach has always been recruiting. This is where things get especially interesting.

Almost as soon as he was hired this spring, Hewitt landed the No. 6 center in the class of 2011, a 95-rated, four-star prospect named Erik Copes, who de-committed from George Washington after Karl Hobbs was fired. Needless to say, this type of recruiting runs antithetical to the typical image of George Mason as a scrappy underdog fighting its way to success against bigger, more powerful foes.

For one, Copes' commitment gives Hewitt an athletic, high-motor competitor with size and athleticism, if not polish. But more importantly, it signifies that Hewitt could use his recruiting prowess to lure some of the talent that Beltway-area schools like Maryland and Georgetown will spend the next 10 years battling for. Even if the returns are modest, they'll almost certainly result in a talent boost. In the long term, that has to make Mason fans feel quite optimistic.

As for 2011-12, though, Hewitt's challenge is to adapt his style to conform the multifaceted, offensively gifted group of players he will inherit in his first season. If he can introduce some of his solid defensive chops, all the better.

But for the first time in years, mostly thanks to chance, Hewitt will coach a team of players that can hit shots from all over the floor. After three seasons spent watching his teams chuck brick after brick, that will have to feel like a relief.