CLEVELAND | The George Mason basketball team had time - more than it could have ever fathomed - to process its 98-66 loss to Ohio State on Sunday in the NCAA tournament's round of 32 before reporters descended on the Patriots' locker room.
The blowout was in some ways numbing, a startling splash of reality for a program both with a memorable postseason past and a certainty that Friday's defeat of Villanova was the start of another remarkable run.
Yet it also quickly crystallized what Mason (27-7) accomplished over more than four months. The Patriots matched a school record for victories, set a program mark for consecutive victories (16), won an outright CAA regular-season title, earned their second NCAA at-large berth, and secured their best seeding in six NCAA appearances.
Absorbing a pounding from the tournament's top overall seed couldn't change any of it.
"It's not disappointing at all," junior forward Mike Morrison said. "We had a great season. We accomplished a lot of things this year and put our school back on the map. We're ready to come back and do it again next year."
The pieces are certainly in place for the Patriots. Morrison and Ryan Pearson will be back to anchor the frontcourt, and starters Andre Cornelius and Luke Hancock (who missed the loss to the Buckeyes with a stomach illness) are expected to be staples on the perimeter. Coach Jim Larranaga said Hancock's lingering shoulder injury is an issue that must be addressed in the offseason.
Mason will also get sophomore Sherrod Wright (torn labrum) back from injury and can take sophomore forward Johnny Williams' strong play in the tournament as a notable development going forward. Still, nothing is completely certain beyond the likelihood the Patriots will again be among the CAA's favorites.
"Our freshmen, how hard will they work this summer?" Larranaga asked. "We have some guys who want to go home during the summer. We need find out how committed they're going to be to improving because if you're satisfied with what we did last year, then you won't be as good next year. We have to be hungry to get better and keep improving."
Mason only loses two seniors: Cam Long, a first-team all-conference performer as a senior, and Isaiah Tate, the Patriots' sixth man and arguably their best defender.
The two were the only players who entered the season with NCAA experience, and Tate believes this year's appearance will only help going forward.
"I think those guys will be great," Tate said. "They know what they need to work on. I'm sure this loss will give them the fire they need to work out and get better and get right back here next year."
The most difficult task will be replacing Long, who averaged a team-high 15.1 points as a senior and is the only player in program history with 1,400 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists for his career.
Like Tate, Long believes the Patriots can be better next season. Yet he echoed a warning similar to Larranaga's to his now former teammates if they wish to enjoy similar success in 2012.
"They have to work harder at it and get better, and it's going to start from day one as soon as the workouts start when we get back," Long said before pausing briefly. "Or, when they get back. They have to understand everything you work on is going to make you better and might get you back to this day again next year."
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