- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2011

George Mason missed out on its shot at one of its state’s two power-conference schools last month.

It just makes the Patriots’ date against the other all the more significant — on multiple levels.

Mason (6-2) visits Virginia (7-1) on Tuesday, an opportunity rare in a historical context for the Patriots to make an impression against a high-profile team within the commonwealth’s borders. But it’s also arguably the best remaining chance for Mason to secure the sort of nonconference victory that will stand out on its resume come March.

“It’s going to be an important game for us — if nothing else, to see where are we,” coach Paul Hewitt said. “I think we’re better. I think we played a good team in Bucknell [Wednesday]. You win any conference game on the road [such as Saturday’s 65-53 win at Towson], I don’t care who you are, you look at the scores and I don’t care what conference you’re in, it’s going to be a tough game.”

So will this one, and its importance is magnified because the Patriots squandered a chance earlier this season to even play a big-name opponent — or three.

Mason participated in the NIT Season Tip-Off last month, opening with a pair of games in Blacksburg, Va. The Patriots could have played Virginia Tech in the second day of that regional but stumbled against Florida International.

Instead of facing Virginia Tech and then, potentially, Syracuse and either Oklahoma State or Stanford in New York, the Patriots played Monmouth on a neutral court and Albany and Brown in Fairfax. Mason won all three by an average of 26 points, which helped the Patriots’ record but is unlikely to do much for their postseason profile.

Enter a date with coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, who are the lone power-conference team to face Mason this season and also scheduled to return to Fairfax for next year’s season opener. Virginia is off to its best start since 2004-05, and upended then-No. 14 Michigan last week.

It’s significant for Mason, a perennial CAA contender, just to face either of the state’s two most prominent programs. The Patriots have played Virginia Tech twice, splitting a pair of games in 1991-92 while the Hokies still were in the Atlantic 10.

Mason’s history with Virginia is minimal as well: Six games, all losses and none since early in the 1997-98 season.

“It’s a great opportunity for our kids to go down there and play them,” Hewitt said. “We want to be a team that’s considered [excellent] year-in, year-out — and obviously, Mason has established itself, and I’m not trying to say we’re trying to establish anything other than what they’ve done already. These are the types of game that allow us to do that.”

Yet in the near-term, it also is a significant barometer for an incomplete team. Hewitt said after Saturday’s often-sluggish victory he is optimistic freshman guard Corey Edwards (concussion) will play at Virginia after missing the past two games. Senior Andre Cornelius still has two games to sit out because of a suspension.

The return of both players will shake up the Patriots’ backcourt and, in the case of Cornelius in particular, provide a significant boost to Mason’s outside shooting.

“We have a big piece to add, if Andre comes back and he’s right, and Corey, who was starting before he got hurt,” Hewitt said. “One of the things we’re missing is a guy who can just create something, just create some offense. Corey creates some offense. Andre can create offense. We have a chance to be really good come Jan. 1.”

That, no doubt, would be a good. But so would securing some in-state bragging rights — and a signature victory — before league play returns.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said forward Mike Morrison, whose team has won four straight. “They’ve got some talented players. I watched them play the other day, and I love competition. I’m sure they’ll have a nice crowd there. I’m just looking forward to playing against some top competition and show them what we can do.”

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