|Around the Rim: Ironing Out the Kinks|
With two weeks to go in the regular season, the George Mason men’s basketball team is like a golfer struggling to find his game before a big tournament. When the ball striking is good, the putting is bad. When the putting is good, there are problems with ball striking.
“Apropos,” said head coach Paul Hewitt after Tuesday practice sandwiched between Saturday’s loss to Delaware and Thursday’s game at Drexel. The loss to the Blue Hens, who last won in the Patriot Center in 2001, was disappointing in light of the continued improving play of posts Jon Arledge and Erik Copes, who combined for 28 points and 21 rebounds in the 79-72 loss.
Meanwhile, Sherrod Wright, the team’s leading scorer and best shooter, had 12 points but was 4-for-16 from the field. Earlier in the season, the guards were carrying the team as the posts had struggles.
“I know what our guards are capable of doing,” Hewitt said. “I came into the season with high expectations for our bigs. Now they’re starting to play that way for different reasons. Erik is getting healthy (after off-season hip surgery). Jon’s confidence is lifted. Now we need to get J2 (Johnny Williams, concussion) back healthy and Marko (Gujanicic) straightened out, then I think we’ll be really strong going into the tournament.”
“I still like our team, still really like our guys. Now that our bigs are starting to play a little better, we just need to get our guards to come back up. Sherrod’s kind of fallen off a little, maybe just the weight of putting everything on him is catching up to him.”
The trip to Drexel is a chance to avenge one of the most deflating losses of the season. The Patriots were up 20 points in the first half before losing 58-54 on Jan. 31. They were outscored 14-2 on fast break points and 11-1 on second-chance points.
So it was no surprise that getting back in transition and denying offensive rebounds were the main emphasis in Tuesday’s practice.
“It’s not just transition defense,” Hewitt said. “It’s transition defense after our transition opportunities. We must have given up six to eight points that way. We had breakouts and either a shot got blocked or we missed the shot; they would just turn around, boom, and go the other way. We had four (players) below the foul line and only one back. It’s a matter of re-establishing in our minds that a shot is a shot, get back.”
For Copes, who grew up in Philadelphia, the Drexel game is a homecoming. It’s also a return to the court where last year as a freshman he was having an impressive game until injuring himself with a nosedive fall after being upended in mid-air.
Copes goes into the game feeling better about the way his hip is recovering and with confidence in the team: “We believe in each other. I’ll never stop believing in my teammates, no matter what would happen. We could have lost by 40 points to the number-one team in the country; I would never stop believing in my team. Never.”
Dick Patrick started attending Final Fours as a high school student in Kentucky in the 1960s when UCLA had a center, Lew Alcindor, who later was better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Patrick has covered Final Fours and college basketball for five decades, including nearly 25 years at USA Today. He has been around long enough and been in enough gyms to have seen Paul Hewitt play in college.