Even now, Carlos Yates occasionally wonders why he turned down Purdue, North Carolina State and Clemson to stay at home to play for George Mason. But the time for regrets is gone.
In five games this year, Yates has shot 65 percent and averaged 25.8 points -- better statistics than Patrick Ewing, Adrian Branch, Mark Nickens or Ralph Sampson.
And because Yates and junior guard Andy Bolden are playing so well for the Patriots, George Mason basketball may be on the verge of at least regional respectability.
"We're on the brink, but I don't know how far that brink is," said GMU Coach Joe Harrington. "Carlos has given us scoring consistency. The other players realize Carlos is very good at scoring and they feel comfortable with that because they know he does it for the team."
Mason is 3-2, having lost to Virginia Commonwealth by 11 points in the season-opener and by three points at Long Island. In between was an important victory at North Carolina-Charlotte, in which Yates made 12 of 13 shots from the field.
The enthusiasm over that victory was tempered, however, by the subsequent loss at LIU, which Harrington hopes will prove to be a turning point.
"If George Mason basketball is to get the respect these guys (the players) think they deserve," Harrington said, "we have to win on the road in big cities. We won in Charlotte and that helped our image, but we lost in New York. We talked for a long time about that."
Harrington said the feedback from his players has been positive, especially from Yates, his most significant recruit, and Bolden, his first recruit.
"When we took the job, we singled out Carlos (from Flint Hill Prep) as a player we thought could point us in the right direction, maybe even help us turn the program around," Harrington said.
But Yates was considering basketball-prestigious schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Ten, and, "Everybody thought we didn't have a chance to get him," Harrington said.
"I was surprised he stayed at home," said Bolden. "I knew of his reputation and I knew we needed him, but I was worried about getting him."
Despite some second-guessing early last year about his decision to attend Mason, Yates averaged 16 points and four rebounds per game as a freshman playing mostly at guard. He was named the ECAC South rookie of the year. He tended to play well in conference games and against established local teams such as Maryland. But against teams like Delaware, Yates found it hard to get excited and played horribly.
"I didn't get motivated to play against the so-called lesser teams," Yates said this week. "Out of high school, I really looked to play against the big schools. But after scoring two points against Delaware, I knew I had to mature. Maybe I was trying to grow a little quicker than I was supposed to, but the team needed me to be consistent."
Harrington told Yates he needed his best effort in every game, like the next one against Brooklyn College tonight at home.
Yates responded with nine-for-12, nine-for-14 and 12-for-13 shooting performances. At 6 feet 5 and 210 pounds, and now playing the whole court as a forward, Yates presents a problem for opposing defenses because he can score from inside and out.
And he is complemented by Bolden, a 6-1 junior from Norfolk who is as smooth offensively as any guard in the area. Bolden, also an ECAC South rookie of the year, is shooting 55 percent, averaging 13 points per game, and providing a largely inexperienced team with stability.
"He's got an unorthodox shot that spins on an axis, like the earth," said Maryland guard Pete Holbert, who edged Bolden for the Virginia state scoring title when the two were seniors in high school. "He's got deceptive quickness. He likes to get you back on your heels, then take it by you. With him and Yates, they've got an opportunity to build a good program."
Mason has several good freshmen, including 6-5 forward Rob Rose, who is shooting 57 percent. But, as Bolden says, "We need a big guy, somebody to take the ball off the glass."
"That's right," Yates said. "All we really need is a big guy and we could make a big stride into the top 35 or better."