FAIRFAX, Va. -- So far, it's taken more than a coaching change to alter George Mason's record of Colonial Athletic Association success. After Wednesday night's 89-63 thrashing of Delaware in Fairfax, the Patriots awoke Thursday morning to find themselves with a 6-1 CAA record (14-5 overall), good enough for a first-place tie with Old Dominion, whom Mason already beat once on the road and will play again on February 4 at the Patriot Center.
Not bad for a team that started the season 2-2 after overtime losses to Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
"A lot of people were doubting us because of the slow start, but now you've got a lot of people starting to get back on the George Mason wagon and have confidence again," senior forward Mike Morrison said Wednesday night. "We still have a long way to go. We're working toward a championship, not just being good."
Mason entered this season having lost two of the most prominent figures from a team that won 27 games in 2010-11. The first was effervescent coach Jim Larranaga, who departed to take the helm of Miami's floundering ACC program. The other was four-year player Cam Long, who averaged just over 15 points per game in 2010-11, enough to lead the team in scoring.
Larranaga has been replaced by former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, but the team's style looks much as it did under the New Yorker. The Patriots lead the CAA in scoring offense, field goal percentage, assists, and blocked shots (71.5 points per game, 47.5 percent from the field, 12.9 assists per game, and 5.4 blocks per game, respectively). They're second in the conference in field goal defense, three-point defense, and three-point field-goal percentage (38.3 percent, 29.5 percent, and 34.9 percent, respectively).
"We practice running and we want to be a running team and we want to be a high-scoring team," said Morrison's fellow senior, Ryan Pearson. "The way to get more possessions in a game is to get easy baskets. The easiest baskets you can get are uncontested layups."
With Long gone, the scoring burden has been picked up by Morrison and Pearson, who finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds Wednesday night. Both men combined to go 15-for-27 from the field, spearheading a Mason attack that finished the game shooting 54 percent from the field (31-for-57). From inside the three-point arc, the Patriots shot a remarkable 58.3 percent (28-for-48). That number, however, is as much a function of Delaware's lackluster defense as Morrison's and Pearson's dominating inside play. The Blue Hens only forced eight Mason turnovers and could only come up with one steal on the night.
When asked to explain the remarkably mistake-free game his team had played, Hewitt, who is less verbose than his predecessor, said, "I have no idea. We were cleaner. We were more efficient at times. We make some plays sometimes that I just scratch my head."
Bigger tests lie ahead for George Mason, including a home-and-home against VCU, a road test against Northeastern, and home games against Old Dominion and James Madison. Last season, the Patriots passed most of those tests, which resulted in them earning a No.8 seed in the NCAA tournament despite getting knocked out of the CAA tournament by VCU in the semifinals.
This year, with Hewitt, Morrison and Pearson leading the way, there's no reason to think the Patriots won't do it again.
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