|Around the Rim: A Wild Open Tourney Field|
There was no green team, gold team or black team at practice Monday. All Paul Hewitt wanted was scrimmages between shirts and skins.
"We wanted to recreate a preseason atmosphere, going shirts and skins and letting them play, making it as competitive as possible," the George Mason coach said. "It's a new season."
The new season is the CAA playoffs which begin Saturday in Richmond with an evenly matched seven-team field and No. 4 seed Mason (17-13, 10-8) facing No. 5 Drexel (13-17, 9-9) at 3:30 p.m. The field is reduced because the 11-team league won't have four teams in the tournament. Towson and UNC Wilmington fell afoul of Academic Progress Rate standards and are ineligible for post-season play. Based on CAA bylaws, Old Dominion and Georgia State are ineligible due to their upcoming moves to Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference, respectively.
The team that wins Monday's title game will be headed to the NCAA tourney. The rest will be going to other tournaments or heading home without any postseason.
If the regular season is any indicator, it could be a wild three days. Tight games were the norm in the league. Mason had a better conference road mark (6-3) than home record (4-5). One weekend, only the road teams won. In the season finale Saturday, first-place Northeastern (19-11, 14-4) lost at home on senior day to last place ODU (5-25, 3-15).
"That sends the signal to everybody it truly is wide open," Hewitt said about Northeastern's loss heading into the tourney. "Clearly Northeastern was the best team in the league this year. (Coach) Bill (Coen) did a great job with his team. His players performed night in and night out. It's just a reminder you've got to come out and play."
Finishing first gives Northeastern a first-round bye and entry into a Saturday semifinal against the Mason-Drexel winner. It's a nice perk but doesn't guarantee anything else.
"I think each and every game is going to be decided by a very small margin," Coen said. "It's going to be an exciting tournament because I don't think there's a coach or player going to Richmond thinking they don't have a chance. Every team, every coach, every program is going down there thinking it's wide open."
The Patriots have that attitude despite having lost their last two games and three of their last five. Junior Sherrod Wright, the team's leading scorer at 16.5 ppg, was feeling discouraged after the 82-77 loss to Delaware in the regular-season finale until he received a text from director of operations Scott Lombardi that the Patriots had drawn Drexel, with whom they split games during the season, in the first round.
"I was in my room, screaming and yelling," said Wright, who has been battling a foot injury (plantar fasciitis) for much of the season. "I'm excited, I'm ready to go. This is our one last opportunity to let everybody know. They claim we had a bad season. We've got to prove everybody wrong."
The players, with the exception of point guard Corey Edwards and post Erik Copes, who both sat out practice to let their bodies recover, were energetic in Monday's practice. There were four 15-minute scrimmages. The only stats charted: points and rebounds.
"It got competitive," Hewitt said. "A little junk talking, some trash talking. Sure enough, the team with the most rebounds usually won."
As Hewitt said after a recent 85-81 overtime loss to Towson: "When we rebound, we can play with anybody. When we don't rebound, we lose."
There's another stat that emerged from the coach's analysis of the season. Opponents have shot 713 foul shots to the Patriots' 561. The team has been outscored by 97 points at the foul line.
"The one thing that's an Achilles heel of ours is putting people on the foul line," Hewitt said. "We're fouling far too many times. We're putting people on the foul line too many times. I don't think I've ever been around a team that has outscored people from the floor as much as this team and lost games. Most of the games we've lost, we've lost them on the foul line.
"We've just got to do a better job keeping people off the foul line. If we do that, I think we can be a more consistent team. That's what we're trying to strive for right now. You've got to be consistent from possession to possession."
In the last two losses, to Towson and Delaware, the Patriots lost second-half leads. There were too many empty late-game possessions or extra shots for opponents after offensive rebounds.
"You've got to be consistent," Hewitt said. "That's what I keep stressing to my team. We can't have those lapses where we don't box out; we can't have those lapses where we reach instead of moving our feet. It could be the difference of a turnover here or a missed box-out there or missed free throw there that ends your season.
"We keep talking to our guys about making sure we pay attention to all those little details. I think the overall playing of the game we're fine. We've got guys that will make shots. We've got guys that'll make plays. It's the details that will make the difference in the end. When you're talking about a one-and-done situation, it would feel awful bad if you walked back to the locker room thinking, 'If I just slid over and met a guy a foot outside the paint or made sure I boxed that guy out, we could keep playing.'"
The Patriots head to Richmond thinking they can earn an NCAA berth. So do six other teams. It could get crazy.
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.