- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

A blowout of a perennial second-division team is in its immediate past. A meeting with a historically inept team is up next. And no games against opponents with winning records await for another two weeks.

It’s a time of self-maintenance for George Mason, an odd stretch between a rugged start and a closing stretch the Patriots hope leads to a conference title.

So in Wednesday’s 89-63 bludgeoning of Delaware, coach Paul Hewitt twice called timeouts after easy Blue Hens dunks. The outcome wasn’t in doubt — at least not on that night.

“We can never get comfortable,” forward Ryan Pearson said. “We haven’t done nothing yet, and there’s still a lot of games left in this regular season before the CAA tournament starts.”

There are a dozen more outings looming for the Patriots (14-5, 6-1 CAA) before the conference tournament, starting with Saturday’s visit from Towson (0-19, 0-7). They’ve won seven of eight since a lethargic loss to Duquesne and have established themselves as contender’s for the league’s No. 1 seed.

They’re not perfect — far from it — though flaws usually were hard to discern against a Delaware team completely disinterested in defense. Nonetheless, the Blue Hens lingered within single digits with 16 minutes to play before Mason cruised.

It isn’t always quite so simple; just four days earlier, the Patriots survived an 89-83 foulfest at James Madison.

“We let our concentration get away from us,” Hewitt said. “The other night at Madison was a classic example. We’re up 24 with eight minutes to go, and all the sudden we start hacking people and throwing the ball all over the place.”

In mid-January, such foibles are merely instructional opportunities. Hewitt knows all too well the Patriots need to heed them now before the stakes grow greater over what likely will be three defining days in Richmond in six weeks.

Hewitt described the importance of the middle third of the regular season last month, but the midsection of Mason’s conference schedule might prove just as crucial. The stretch began Wednesday and is bookended with games against Delaware (7-10) — with Towson, UNC Wilmington (7-10), Hofstra (6-13) and James Madison (9-9) wedged in between.

The Patriots might need to sweep through that group to keep pace with conference co-leader Old Dominion. But of greater long-term significance is how Mason goes about its business over the next couple of weeks.

“We all know what the ultimate goal for this team is and what the ultimate destination should be,” Hewitt said. “If we’re going to be that type of team — a championship-level team — it doesn’t matter who you play.”

One of the earliest warning signs Mason might still require some maturity was its Dec. 3 conference opener at Towson. The Patriots established a 10-point lead just more than three minutes in, then was neither seriously threatened nor particularly interested in doing much more in what became a 65-53 victory.

The chance to demonstrate growth — from both then and from a week ago — arrives Saturday in Fairfax.

“I think we’ve come very far,” forward Mike Morrison said. “Early, a lot of people were doubting us and our team because it was off to a slow start. But you’ve got a lot of people starting to get back on the George Mason wagon.”

NOTE: Hewitt said he was uncertain whether forward Erik Copes would play Saturday. Copes has missed the past two games while recovering from a hard fall in the second half of last week’s loss at Drexel. The freshman is averaging 3.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 15.9 minutes.

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