Maybe it's what they needed. Maybe the embarrassment of not even getting a call from the National Invitation Tournament last season after their first NCAA appearance in 1989 was enough to shock the George Mason basketball team into the level of commitment necessary to complement the physical presence of players such as former seaman Robert Dykes, last season's star transfer Byron Tucker, and ballhandling wizard Michael Hargett. Maybe having the same coach for the third year in a row also has helped.

Whatever the reasons, the Patriots opened practice clawing the boards and diving for loose balls as if they all were freshman walk-ons.

And last week they beat High Five America, 107-94, in their opening exhibition. Coach Ernie Nestor called the game a "diagnostic technique." It showed the team could contend with an up-tempo, furiously paced game, which he expects to face continually after the first few games. It also showed areas that need work.

Still, the Patriots, 20-12 last year, are upbeat as they begin the season.

"I think everybody's pretty excited," said Hargett, a junior who holds the school career record for three-pointers (127). He hit 67 threes last season and was the Patriots' top free throw shooter (.825). "My freshman year things went rough and then fell into place, and when it was rough last year, we thought it would turn around. But it didn't. At the end we were getting excited, with hopes to go to the NIT, and this year, it's like we're carrying over where we ended last year.

"We're going right back at each other."

Dykes, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward, set a school record last season with 61 percent field goal accuracy and has overcome knee problems that plagued his first three years.

Tucker, a 6-10, 215-pound center, has matured physically and mentally since averaging 11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds last season.

Hargett (5-10, 168) benefited from playing next to Steve Smith last season and says he can now charge the boards and make the plays.

Henri Abrams, the 6-11, 210-pound center, got front-line lessons this summer playing against Georgetown's Dikembe Mutombo and held his own.

Add 6-5 forward Mitch Madden, who scored 20 points last week, German recruit 6-10 forward Oliver Herkelmann, who has rebounded from back spasms in the first week, 6-4 freshman Paul Arthur, and sophomore guard Jamel Perkins and the Patriots have size and speed.

Last season's major problem centered on inconsistency at crucial moments and the Patriots don't have time for many mistakes this season. They open Friday at Miami. From then until January, they will see East Tennessee twice, St. John's, Louisville, Louisiana Tech and Michigan State. In the new year, the Patriots plunge into Colonial Athletic Association play, closing the regular season at home with James Madison Feb. 23.

"The schedule is very demanding and when we were putting it together, we did so to make us stronger," said Nestor. " . . . You have to play the established teams on a regular basis to have more success. And we're very fortunate with the players, in terms of their progress -- they're going to be better than we thought."

One reason for that is a recently instituted intensive weight program.

Increased strength will allow Tucker, Dykes, Madden, Abrams and Herkelmann to match up with anyone inside. But, as Hargett pointed out, "what we're doing in {the weight room} doesn't win you games, it's what you do on the court."

"Last year everybody thought it would fall together automatically, we had the ability so we'd automatically get there," said Dykes. "But it didn't happen. But we got knocked down and it made us realize that it takes more than ability."