College basketball preview: George Mason Patriots

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GEORGE MASON PATRIOTS

Coach:Paul Hewitt. First season; 256-189 overall

Key player: F Mike Morrison. Ryan Pearson is the established star, but the Patriots will be especially dangerous if Morrison emerges as a more consistent interior threat after averaging 6.8 points and 5.5 rebounds last season.

Biggest loss:G Cam Long. While Luke Hancock’s transfer to Louisville hurt, the Patriots will surely miss a senior who averaged 15.1 points last season and is the only player in school history with 1,400 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists for his career.

Top newcomer:F Erik Copes. While Mason’s backcourt is in far greater flux than its options in the paint, Copes is still a top-100 recruit who figures to play a prominent role for the Patriots over the next four years.

Best case: Guard Andre Cornelius returns from his suspension quickly, the backcourt stabilizes and Hewitt leads the Patriots to their first CAA tournament title since 2008 and a second straight NCAA bid.

Worst case: The backcourt situation never entirely sorts itself out. Mason’s push for a faster pace in Hewitt’s first season is negated by several defense-first CAA teams and the Patriots fall to fourth or fifth in the conference.

Key games:

* George Mason at Virginia, Dec. 6. Between the resumption of an in-state series (the teams haven’t met since 1997) and the chance to secure a resume-boosting win, this one is significant for both teams.

* George Mason at Drexel, Jan. 12. The teams’ only regular season meeting is at the DAC, a small but rowdy environment for an early conference game with major long-term implications.

* VCU at George Mason, Feb. 14. The first end of a home-and-home (the Patriots visit Broad Street on Feb. 25) should be just the latest in a long line of feisty games between the two CAA titans.

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