The rhythmic bouncing of basketballs echoed through the hollow Patriot Center during practice last week, the autumn call of an approaching college season. The 2012-13 George Mason men’s team looked like many of the previous versions, one with a strong inside game, deep bench and experienced coach.
Though the internal characteristics remain steady — and lend promise to a fifth 20-win season in six years — changes have altered George Mason’s landscape.
The Colonial Athletic Association, which has sent two teams to the Final Four since 2006, is in a state of flux. Virginia Commonwealth bolted to the Atlantic 10. Georgia State and Old Dominion are in their final season after making football-influenced commitments to the Sun Belt and Conference USA, respectively. Neither is eligible for the CAA tournament. Nor are Towson and UNC Wilmington, which failed to meet NCAA academic requirements.
It will leave the league with just seven teams scrambling for the NCAA automatic slot at the conference tournament in March.
Amid a swirl of conference restructuring, George Mason flirted with the idea of ending its 27-year CAA membership and joining the Atlantic 10, which enjoys broader national appeal and also added Butler, an NCAA finalist in 2010 and ’11, to its enrollment this year.
GMU formed an ad-hoc committee last spring to explore the possibility of a move. Ultimately, though, it decided to reaffirm its bond with the CAA.
“I still believe the CAA is strong,” Athletic Director Tom O’Connor said. “Those other schools had their reasons to leave. I understand and respect their reasons.”
Reflecting on GMU’s decision, he added: “We didn’t second-guess. There was no whining. We did our due diligence and had every statistic known to man — academics, finances — and had an open dialogue with our administration and coaches.”
Paul Hewitt, in his second season in Fairfax after 11 years at Georgia Tech, likes how the Patriots are positioned in the evolving league.
“If our president and AD had wanted to make a change, I would have been okay with that,” he said, “but I am happy the way things have turned out.”
By the time the seven eligible teams arrive in Richmond for this season’s conference tournament, the Patriots should be among the favorites. In the league’s preseason poll, they were picked third behind Drexel and Delaware.
In case they don’t win the title, the Patriots hope an upgraded nonconference schedule will bolster their at-large portfolio. Aside from facing Virginia in Friday’s opener at Patriot Center, they will play Maryland in the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center, welcome Northern Iowa, battle Richmond in the inaugural Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic and visit South Florida.
“We feel like in order to give yourself multiple chances to get an NCAA bid, you have to play a good schedule,” Hewitt said. “I am not a big believer in this whole business of a one-bid league. If you have a schedule in which the only way you can get into the [NCAA] tournament is by winning the conference tournament, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
There is one catch to an improved schedule, however. “You have to win some of those games,” Hewitt added.
The Patriots (24-9, 14-4 last season) are confident they will win a lot of games, despite the absence of any scholarship seniors and the graduation of CAA player of the year Ryan Pearson (17 points, 8.2 rebounds) and center Mike Morrison (9.8, 6.6, plus 2.0 blocks).
Hewitt’s rotation might include 10 players, led by junior guard Sherrod Wright, who last season averaged 9.6 points, shot 53 percent and beat VCU with a last-second shot.
The strength lies in the front court, with 6-foot-8, 245-pound sophomore Erik Copes, whose 3.3-point and 3.7-rebound average belied his first-year impact. Copes is a premier shot blocker and force in the low post. “I have to take on a lot more responsibility,” he said, “but that is what I want.”
The most intriguing newcomer is Marko Gujanicic, a 6-8 freshman from Serbia who played at a California prep school. In an exhibition victory over Bowie State, he led the team with 16 points.
“This isn’t American basketball bashing, but one thing that occurred to us early was that he has never really played a game that didn’t mean anything,” Hewitt said. “He has played for his country or in a pro league — obviously he wasn’t a pro. In terms of high-pressure situations or frenetic, adverse situations, he has about seen it all.”