George Mason men’s basketball Coach Paul Hewitt has been working on a two-part transition game this fall. The on-court element emphasizes a quick tempo, which he wants to implement in Friday’s opener against Rhode Island at Patriot Center.
The other part will come at a steadier pace and largely out of view: bonding with players, fans and a community that, despite the departure of beloved coach Jim Larranaga and offseason roster issues, has towering expectations for the 2011-12 campaign.
“I am surprised how quickly I’ve been able to get to know the players and I feel like they’re mine already, as opposed to being the new guy around,” said Hewitt, whose 11-year tenure at Georgia Tech ended last spring after five NCAA tournament appearances and a trip to the 2004 national title game. “From my perspective, it’s been a pretty swift adjustment to each other.”
Because Hewitt is not rebuilding a program, he must adjust to the players as much as they must adapt to him. The Patriots, whose 27 victories last season tied a program record, were picked second behind Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll and were the only area team to receive votes in the major preseason polls.
Hewitt won’t fiddle with the program this season and acknowledges that anything short of George Mason’s fourth NCAA tournament berth in seven years won’t go over well.
“Absolutely, it’s a challenge, especially with a group that has enjoyed success,” he said. “We haven’t played any games, but it’s exciting. We’re pushing them a little bit and they’re with it.”
The players say they’ve embraced Hewitt and his methods, and as the season proceeds, they’ll grow stronger.
“We’ve bonded very well and very quickly,” senior forward Mike Morrison said. “What happened was tough with [Larranaga] leaving so suddenly, but it couldn’t have worked out any better. The new coaches came in, got to know everybody, and we have full confidence in them. It’s like we have a superstar lineup of coaches that’s going to get us better and take us a long way.”
Nonetheless, Larranaga’s legacy, forged by 273 victories over 14 seasons and the magical run to the 2006 Final Four, is deeply rooted on the Fairfax campus. It was sure to overshadow any successor, even one as accomplished as Hewitt.
Personality had much to do with Larranaga’s appeal. He was the lovable uncle who would recite passages from motivational books and regale about his wonder years in the Bronx. Thanks to the Final Four appearance, fans around the country were as familiar with the name of George Mason’s affable coach (even if they couldn’t pronounce it) as the school’s nickname and location.
Hewitt is polished, measured and guarded, a byproduct of the unforgiving ACC. He is also personable and engaging. In a recent interview, he shared memories of his childhood in the Pembroke Hall district of Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1960s. He told of moving to Queens at age 7 and attending P.S. 116 — which, coincidentally, is within view of George Mason freshman guard Corey Edwards’s home, he noted.
He spoke of his London-born wife and three daughters; his father, a retired machinist; his mother, a nurse’s assistant; his two brothers, an engineer and communications executive; and sister, a hospital administrator. “And I’m a coach, so the brains jumped right over me,” joked Hewitt, a journalism and economics major while playing at St. John Fisher in Rochester, N.Y.
His career pursuit was coaching, beginning with the junior varsity at his high school alma mater on Long Island, Westbury. He was an assistant at C.W. Post, Southern California and Fordham before spending five years at Villanova. His first head role was at Siena, where he won 66 games in three seasons.
He then guided Georgia Tech to five NCAA tournaments, peaking with a berth in the 2004 title game and the subsequent loss to Connecticut. But the inability to remain in the upper reaches of the ACC, combined with eroding attendance and 13 victories last season, cost him his job. The dismissal triggered a $7.2 million buyout clause. At George Mason, his five-year contract calls for a base salary of about $650,000 and is loaded with incentives tied primarily to on-court success and academic performance.
Although he moved from the top-tier ACC to the mid-level CAA, Hewitt didn’t feel as though he took a step down. In July, when he attended a packed Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce event welcoming him to the area, he said he began to understand the bond between George Mason and Northern Virginia.
“I thought, ‘Wow, these people are serious,’ ” he said. “That was an eye-opener. I didn’t have that kind of interest in the middle of the summer [at Georgia Tech]. It just wasn’t there. This is not a slight on where I came from. It’s just a different place.”
His first six months included a few bumps: Swingman Luke Hancock, hero of the NCAA tournament victory over Villanova last March, transferred to Louisville; reserve guard Rashad Whack moved on to Mount St. Mary’s; forward Johnny Williams wasn’t ready to return from shoulder surgery and will miss the season; and starting guard Andre Cornelius, the top three-point threat, pleaded guilty to credit card fraud and was suspended for the rest of the fall semester.
Conversely, the appointment of George Washington assistant Roland Houston to Hewitt’s staff yielded prized freshman forward Erik Copes, Houston’s nephew who had initially committed to the Colonials. Hewitt also added Seton Hall transfer Anali Okoloji, a 6-foot-8 forward who will sit out this season, and on Wednesday signed Paul VI guard Patrick Holloway to a letter-of-intent.
“My starting point here is better than it has ever been,” he said, reflecting on first-year challenges at Siena and Georgia Tech. “So let’s seen where it goes from here. Hopefully we can continue to have the success that people have grown accustomed to, and let’s build on it.”