It took a moment to grasp the changes with the George Mason men’s basketball team when preseason practice opened Friday afternoon in Fairfax.
Former Georgia Tech boss Paul Hewitt was in charge, having replaced Jim Larranaga, whose 14-year tenure came to an abrupt end last spring when he accepted Miami’s offer. The assistant coaches patrolling Patriot Center were new.
Luke Hancock, three-point hero of the NCAA tournament victory over Villanova in March, had long since moved to Louisville for his final two seasons. Johnny Williams, a top reserve forward last season, was practicing but planning to sit out the season with a shoulder ailment.
And from the bench, dressed in a black warmup outfit, senior guard Andre Cornelius watched the session unfold without him. Cornelius, George Mason’s third-leading scorer and top three-point shooting threat last season, was suspended from the team last month after being charged with credit card larceny (a felony) and credit card fraud (a misdemeanor).
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Nov. 15 in Fairfax County General District Court, four days after the Patriots open the season against visiting Rhode Island. Until the legal matters are resolved, Cornelius can’t practice or play in a game. He continues to take classes and interacts regularly with teammates and coaches.
“It’s a holding pattern,” Hewitt said. Once the legal process is completed, Hewitt and Athletic Director Tom O’Connor “will sit down and figure out what to do” in terms of reinstatement and, presumably, a multigame suspension.
A team spokesman said Cornelius wouldn’t comment during the current suspension. O’Connor said he couldn’t discuss the matter.
Shortly after the arrest, Cornelius apologized to his teammates and “we forgave him,” senior forward Ryan Pearson said. “It hurt, but we’re moving forward. Things happen, people make mistakes. We’re not looking back. We’re waiting to see what happens with his situation.”
Although Cornelius’s uncertainty has tempered expectations a bit, the Patriots remain one of the favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association. They return most of the squad that tied a program record with 27 victories last season, ran off a record 16 straight wins, and finished first in the CAA’s regular season.
Pearson is a player of the year candidate in the league and senior forward Mike Morrison is a dynamic inside presence. Sophomore guard Sherrod Wright has returned from a shoulder injury that sidelined him all last season to claim the starting job vacated by Hancock. Sophomore guard Vertrail Vaughns’s long-distance shooting could compensate for Cornelius’s possible absence.
Freshman forward Erik Copes, who moved to George Mason after initially committing to George Washington, might start right away.
Under Hewitt, the Patriots plan to play a faster tempo.
“Coach told us that the first seven seconds of the shot clock are ours,” Morrison said with excitement. “We can push it, and if we’ve got a good shot, let it go. He won’t say anything to us. If we don’t want to run the ball, the rest of the shot clock is his. From there, he runs the show. He’s motivating us to get out and run.”
Over the next month, Hewitt will have to identify a starting point guard to fill the void left by Hancock and leading scorer Cam Long, who is playing professionally in Lithuania. Cornelius also has experience running the offense. Sophomore Bryon Allen (26 appearances last season) is the top candidate.
Most of all, the Patriots are happy to enter a season without being compared to the program’s Final Four squad. CAA rival Virginia Commonwealth has that burden now.
“I was rooting for VCU. I was glad they did it so now every press conference for us isn’t about the Final Four team,” Pearson said. “VCU can have that Final Four conversation every week. We can talk about our own identity.”