Before getting to the rest of the summer shootaround, here’s a look at how far Johnny Williams has come in the year since shoulder surgery led him to take a redshirt year.
Long story short: Williams played at 260 pounds in his first two seasons at Mason, was up to 275 pounds after his surgery last summer and has since slimmed down to 245 pounds.
It means the Williams who steps on the floor next season for the Patriots won’t be much like the guy who came off the bench his first two seasons. And that’s a good thing for Mason, which figures to push the pace more in coach Paul Hewitt‘s second season.
“I think everybody’s going to be shocked [and think] ‘I remember Johnny Williams was more of a power player, a back-to-the-basket, hook shot kind of guy,’” Williams said. “Now the mid-range jumper is getting better. I might end up shooting a couple threes a game —- maybe. Coach Hewitt is really strict on the jump hook. He loves it. Left and right, he wants it all.”
There’s also a defensive bonus in Williams’ weight loss, a development that’s amplified his athleticism. And that’s always been there; as strength and conditioning coach Handy Handerahan noted, the 6-foot-8 forward has a 7-foot wingspan.
“I said ‘Dude, if you’re this long and you can get up and down the floor and take over your body, you’re going to be a nightmare,” Handerahan said.
Ten other offseason tidbits on the Patriots …
1. Hewitt doesn’t forget how overwhelmed his backcourt was in last year’s CAA semifinals, when the Patriots committed 12 turnovers in the first 12 minutes while surrendering the first 22 points to VCU.
“I think that VCU game was a major embarrassment for me, our coaching staff, but particularly our guards,” Hewitt said of the 74-64 loss. “To get down 32-4, I’m never going to let them forget that. How we handled that pressure was really abysmal.”
Guard Bryon Allen had four turnovers in that half, and backup Corey Edwards was in for two possessions and had a turnover of his own.
“I think they’ve accepted the challenge, Bryon in particular,” Hewitt said. “Bryon and Corey, and they know they have to work on their ballhandling and get stronger with the ball and just learn how to break pressure.”
2. In figuring out the frontcourt, it’s clear to Hewitt that sophomore Erik Copes provides a contrast to the rest of the options in the paint.
“When I look at this group, I see a bunch of skilled guys and Erik’s really the only ‘power guy’ in the group,” Hewitt said. “I think they’re all going to be able to play well together. J2 [Williams] has the ability to score around the basket but he can also stretch the defense. Jon Arledge has done an unbelievable job this summer. … It’ll be interesting to see who plays well together.”
3. Sherrod Wright had some fine moments coming off a redshirt season, most notably his buzzer-beater to sink Virginia Commonwealth on Feb. 14.
He’ll be the Patriots’ top returning scorer, and Mason will need more from him as a junior.
“As I told him, he’s got to play with a little bit more energy offensively,” Hewitt said. “He has to move a little harder, cut better without the ball and get more offensive rebounds, get more run-out baskets. He’s a bit of a room-service guy right now. He wants the ball delivered to him when he’s open so he can shoot it, but he needs to work harder to create more openings for himself. He can’t just depend on everyone else to get him shots. If that’s how he’s going to be, his scoring average conceivably could go down this year because he will be the top guy on the scouting report. He’s going to be the guy everybody goes after.”
4. If Wright isn’t the Patriots’ primary scorer, who is another candidate? Maybe sophomore Vaughn Gray, who averaged 3.4 points off the bench last season.
“I did not anticipate he would shoot the ball the way he shot it,” Hewitt said. “When he came in, everybody kept telling me he was a slasher and can’t shoot. Heck, he turned out to be a better shooter than a slasher. Very pleasant surprise. I thought he had an exceptional freshman year and has a chance to build on what he did. He could be that primary scorer.
“Who knows? Right now, I would say Sherrod is the guy, but if he doesn’t learn to move better without the basketball, then Vaughn could be the guy.”
5. Williams hasn’t spent as much time in the weight room this summer as he would have liked after having a wisdom tooth pulled. The junior is fully aware of the tweaks he’ll need to make after losing 30 pounds.
“Somebody I used to guard just using my weight, they can push me around because of that,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really strong in the weight room, but I had so much weight I could push people around and bully them. Now, it’s going to be different. But I’m going to get stronger in the weight room.”
6. Mason will probably look a bit more like a typical Hewitt team on the defensive end.
“We’ll probably do a little more trapping and pressing,” Hewitt said. “We didn’t want to wear Ryan [Pearson] out. Ryan was so important to us. I think this year’s team has more balance and hopefully we can make the full court pressure more of a part of our game and maybe wear people out a little bit.”
7. Hewitt said the truncated CAA tournament —- only seven teams will compete in the event in March after Georgia State and Old Dominion were ruled ineligible after declaring they would depart the league and Towson and UNC Wilmington were banned because of APR penalties from the NCAA —- wouldn’t change much for the Patriots.
That’s because Hewitt views the CAA tournament as a second chance of sorts, and he is hopeful a strong nonconference schedule will allow Mason to build a resume for the NCAA tournament.
“The approach we took, because we hurt ourselves last year by being upset by Florida International [in the Preseason NIT] and not giving ourselves a chance to play Virginia Tech and eliminating ourselves from playing in Madison Square Garden, we’ve really tried to strengthen the nonconference schedule to give us two chances, if you will, to get a bid,” Hewitt said.
8. Speaking of the nonconference schedule, Mason opens in Fairfax against Virginia (Nov. 9), faces Northern Iowa at home, visits Bucknell and South Florida and meets Maryland (BB&T Classic/Verizon Center) and Richmond (Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic/Richmond Coliseum) on nominally neutral courts.
South Florida and Virginia were NCAA tournament teams last season. Both Bucknell and Northern Iowa made the NIT.
The Patriots will also play three games in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands (Nov. 16-19), opening with defending CIT champion Mercer. That leaves no more than three other nonconference dates in addition to an 18-game league schedule
9. Anali Okoloji, a 6-foot-8 transfer, becomes eligible this season.
“I’m really pleased with his development,” Hewitt said. “The year has helped him a lot. Anali is a terrific athlete and a very good shooter who could become an excellent shooter, but he’s probably young in the game mentally. I think this year really helped him to grow in that aspect.”
Okoloji averaged 1.9 points and 1.0 rebounds in 16 games at Seton Hall in 2010-11.
10. Now 14 months into his stint at Mason, Hewitt said something that’s stood out is his relationship with his athletic director.
“Tom O’Connor is great,” he said. “He’ll call you up and make suggestions that may even cost him money —- ‘Hey, you might want to think about this as a way to travel. And don’t worry about it, we have to do what’s best for the kids.’ He gets it. I was told that before I took the job, and being here a year and being around him and [senior associate athletic director] Adam Brick, both of those guys are really sharp guys. Tom O’Connor’s the best. He gets it.”
—- Patrick Stevens