George Mason coach Paul Hewitt designed his team's nonconference schedule to provide an additional avenue for the Patriots to burnish their postseason credentials.
At 7-5 in a league littered with teams that underperformed in nonconference play, Mason is a long-shot at best to warrant at-large NCAA tournament consideration. Nonetheless, the way the Patriots reached this point could bode well in conference play.
Four of Mason's losses came by five points or less. In the other, against Maryland, the Patriots led early in the second half.
It's not hard to imagine Mason as a 9-3 team. That does little good — Hewitt knows he isn't the only coach who could play the what-if game — but the response he's seen as the Patriots prepare for Thursday's CAA opener against Northeastern (5-7) in Fairfax is promising.
"Maybe that's why the kids are paying attention even more," Hewitt said Wednesday. "Instead of being discouraged at 7-5, I think they're thinking, 'We're close.' They know it comes down to a couple of possessions here and there. For us, mostly it's been on the offensive end. Defensively, we've been outstanding and I think we'll continue to be outstanding."
At the same time, Mason's path to the NCAA tournament already appears narrower than when the season opened two months ago. Only one other CAA team entered the month with a winning record (William & Mary at 7-4). Preseason favorites Delaware and Drexel were a combined 9-16 entering Wednesday.
In short, Mason will not secure many (or, possibly, any) victories in the next two months that will wow selection committee members in March. It doesn't mean the next 18 games will prove a breeze.
"I think those comments are very fair, but I look at the league and I see Northeastern getting healthy," Hewitt said. "I see Drexel overcoming some injuries and they're going to get healthy. Delaware's going to get healthy. Pat [Skerry] has a bunch of new kids at Towson and they're going to get better. I think if anything this year, we had some bad timing and bad luck [as a league]."
While bubble chatter and RPI talk might not hover over Mason during conference play, one obvious benefit is at stake in the regular season. Outgoing CAA members Georgia State and Old Dominion are not permitted in the conference tournament per league bylaws, and both Towson and UNC Wilmington are ineligible because of NCAA Academic Progress Rate sanctions.
That leaves just seven teams for the league tournament, meaning the regular season champ receives direct passage into the semifinals and the chance to sit out the opening day in Richmond.
"We're trying to win the league so we don't have to play two games instead of three," forward Erik Copes said. "It'd be better for our bodies and be better for our minds to watch our opponent the game before we play them. It'd be better for us, but we're just trying to get better."
As competitive as the Patriots were outside the CAA, they still face some uncertainty. The offense isn't always fluid and remains turnover-prone at times. Freshman Patrick Holloway, a source of instant offense, could see a bump in playing time as the season unfolds.
Then there's an 11-man rotation that might not remain viable over a full season.
"That's a great question," Hewitt said. "I don't know. I might have to try to shorten the rotation a little bit to give us a little more flow offensively. We're definitely going to play four bigs, I know that. But on the perimeter, I might need to make an adjustment and cut it down to five."
One thing, though, remains clear to Mason: Even if its nonconference performance won't provide a ticket to the NCAA tournament, it does provide optimism for what is still to come.
"Most of the games we lost, it was a couple breakdowns defensively or a couple free throws," said guard Sherrod Wright, who Saturday became the first Patriot to score 20 points in four straight games since Jason Miskiri in 1999. "All the games have been pretty close that we've lost, where one change of events and we win the game. We know we can hang in with any team."
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