George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt sat in his office Thursday afternoon staring at a computer screen. It was 30 minutes before practice and Hewitt was watching the final two plays of his team’s 88-87 loss to visiting Massachusetts the previous night.
He had already seen both plays at least 100 times — first in front of his disbelieving eyes in those excruciating final seconds; then in his mind’s eye as he lay awake in bed before finally getting up and driving to the office at 6 a.m.; and finally on the computer screen again and again as if seeing it repeatedly might somehow make it go away.
No such luck.
“We’re going to run it today to start practice,” he said, finally pulling back from the computer. “Last night, I remembered something Hubie Brown used to say at clinics: ‘When something goes really wrong on a crucial play, start practice with it the next day. Show them how to get it right and drill it into them so they never get it wrong again.’ ”
That was Hewitt’s plan. He fully understood that the loss to 16th-ranked U-Mass., in a game the Patriots led by five with 40 seconds to play, was almost certainly going to be a crossroads game in his third season at George Mason. After the loss, the Patriots dropped to 7-10 overall and 0-3 in the Atlantic 10, their new conference. They had played respectably at Virginia Commonwealth in the league opener for 35 minutes before losing by 14 and then had a solid chance to beat Saint Joseph’s at home before losing, 84-80. Then came the U-Mass. game, which should have been a turnaround type of win.
“The thing is I like these kids a lot,” Hewitt said. “They’re a good group when it comes to listening and trying to learn. I’ve had teams that struggled that weren’t that way to the point where I was on the brink of thinking I needed to find something else to do.
“This is nothing close to that. In fact, since the Oklahoma game [an 81-66 loss on Dec. 8], I can only think of one half where we didn’t play well. Against Oklahoma, we didn’t compete and I was upset with that. Since then, they’ve competed well. We just haven’t gotten the results.”
He smiled. “Of course, that’s what you play for — results — not to say you played hard.”
Hewitt has been a head coach for 17 seasons at Siena, Georgia Tech and now at George Mason. He has coached in the national championship game (2004) and has also had seasons that ended on very down notes. He knows a crossroads when he sees one.
There were tears in the locker room after the U-Mass. game, so before trying fruitlessly to sleep on Wednesday night, Hewitt called many of his players to check up on them. His first call was to Sherrod Wright, the senior guard who had played a superb game — scoring 26 points — until he turned over the ball twice in the final seconds, the second one leading to Derrick Gordon’s game-winning basket.
There was also a call to Bryon Allen, the other senior guard who had scored 21 points but turned over the ball trying to dribble behind his back in the final seconds after Gordon’s basket with 8.1 seconds to go.
Hewitt didn’t want any of his players beating themselves up. But he wanted to remind them that time — in a season, in a career — is precious.
“I want them to think more about basketball situations when they aren’t playing basketball,” Hewitt said. “Put themselves in those moments like the ones last night. There are so many little ways to win a game. I always tell them about Magic [Johnson] years ago with the Lakers up one and three seconds to go not wanting to get fouled so he just took the ball and threw it up in the air towards the back court. By the time it got run down the game was over. They need to think about the game — and game situations — more often.”
When he gathered his players in the locker room on Thursday afternoon to look at pre-practice tape, Hewitt didn’t give any speeches. He didn’t rant or rave because effort hasn’t been the issue. But the first thing he showed his team was “Rome chop,” the press-breaking play they had failed to execute with the game on the line. Slowly, painfully, he walked them through it. Three of the five players on the court hadn’t carried out their assignments. One had gotten it half right. Only one was where he was supposed to be.
Wright took the fall because the ball was in his hands and he was the one who got stripped trying to dribble through a double-team, but he wasn’t the only one who had failed to do his job.
“What’s the worst-case scenario in that situation?” Hewitt said. Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “Live-ball turnover. If you throw it down the court, you kill time and they have to go 94 feet to set up. If you throw it in the stands, we get to set our defense. Live-ball turnover leads to this.”
He showed the Minutemen’s Chaz Williams stealing the ball from Wright and missing before Gordon’s putback in the wild scramble.
Hewitt moved on to the next and last play: Allen taking the inbounds in full flight, spotting a seam in the defense and putting the ball behind his back before losing it.
“What is the play in basketball I hate more than any single play — any single play?” Hewitt asked.
This time, the answer came right back from a dozen voices: “behind-the-back dribble.”
“Right. Because you lose sight of the ball. Got that? B.A. [Allen]? Everyone?”
They headed to the court and, as soon as they had stretched, they lined up in their press-breaking offense.
“Rome chop,” Hewitt said.
They ran it once. Twice. Over and over. First option. Second. Third. Fourth.
Each time they were perfect or close to it.
“Empty gym is a lot different than a full gym,” Hewitt said quietly. “But this is where you have to start.”
Or re-start. Ninety minutes after running “Rome chop” over and over, Hewitt sent his players home with one final admonition.
“Listen fellas, I don’t want to sound cold,” he said. “But I need you to think about one thing. I appreciate the tears and how upset I know you were [Wednesday] night. I know you genuinely care — I like that. But what I really care about, what I need to see, is execution. Help one another out. Make the plays. You’re plenty good enough to do it.
“I liked what I saw today. But I really need to see it at 12:30 on Saturday. That’s what matters.”
They were back in the gym at 8 a.m. Friday morning and then en route to that game at Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same, this time a 71-69 loss in overtime. Back to the drawing board, and the practice court.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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