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George Mason’s Paul Hewitt quick to make ‘32-4’ message point

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History shows George Mason ended its last basketball season with a 10-point loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the CAA tournament.

The Patriots don't remember it quite that way. They know about their turnover-a-minute pace in the game's early stages. They know about the giant chasm they almost climbed out of. They know how it brought an end to their season.

And they know because coach Paul Hewitt is intent on not letting them forget.

"To the point I dream about it," forward Jonathan Arledge said. "That's how much I hear about it."

He and the rest of the Patriots, who finally can start to put to rest the haunting conclusion to their season when they play host to Virginia on Friday in Fairfax.

Something will stay with them, though. Hewitt made certain of that, printing cards with a picture of former VCU star Bradford Burgess and text as stunning and vivid today as it was eight months ago:

"March 4, 2012

First half, 11:10

VCU 32 vs.

GMU 4"

"We hear it a lot, but not from other people, just the coaches," forward Johnny Williams said. "They want to keep that in our head. If someone making someone turn the ball over, it's like 'Oh, chaos is in the building,' so everybody won't forget that day because that was a horrible day, and we want that to stay in our mind."

If Mason (24-9 last season) is to grow from its forgettable finish, it will need to do so with a dramatically revamped frontcourt that had little influence on the course of last year's finale.

Williams redshirted and watched the game from Fairfax. Erik Copes, who is suspended the first three games of the season for a conduct violation, was injured and on the bench. Paris Bennett didn't play, and newcomer Marko Gujanicic was not part of the team. Only Arledge, who was stellar in producing in his first career double-double that day, was on the floor.

It's notable who isn't around, too. Ryan Pearson was the CAA's player of the year a season ago. Mike Morrison was the Patriots' emotional nexus and enjoyed a breakout year. Together, they combined for 38 percent of Mason's scoring and nearly 41 percent of its rebounding.

"Yes, everybody's going to miss them," Copes said. "Yes, everybody's going, 'How is Mason going to get back to being the old Mason without them?' But we have some pretty good guys in this frontcourt."

There's Copes, who is as physically imposing as nearly anyone in the CAA and should be one of the league's supreme shot-swatters. Williams reshaped his body during his redshirt year and possesses the footwork to be a factor inside and the jump shot to be a nightmare on the perimeter. Arledge showed promise in several areas last year.

Maybe there won't be a star quite like Pearson. Yet his departure could be mitigated if there is steady production from several frontcourt pieces.

"I feel as though we have a deep bench," Williams said. "We have players that can shoot, we have players that can post up and we have players that just play hard. I think as a post player and as a team, we all have to find that monster inside of us so we can play a lot harder."

Mason would like this season to unfold in a vastly different fashion than its unexpected final act. If it doesn't, it won't be as if they didn't receive enough reminders.

"We'll see if they got the message," Hewitt said. "There's going to be a game this year where we're going to find out. Someone's going to come and throw a big punch at us. Let's see what we do. Are we going to stay down until they get to 32-4 again?"

It'll take smarter play and more capable ball-handling, especially in the crucible of the conference tournament. Yet before then, the entire roster (including the new-look frontcourt) will be tested.

One thing is clear: It's a group eager to atone for its sour exit.

"I was on the bench dying inside, but you learn from your mistakes," Copes said. "I think we did."

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