- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On paper, George Mason deserves to be voted the second-worst team in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll.

The Patriots finished last season with a record of 11-20. They only won four games in A-10 play. Their two leading scorers, guards Sherrod White and Byron Allen, graduated after accounting for nearly half of coach Paul Hewitt’s offense with their combined 31.0 points per game.

However, Hewitt considers injuries a greater threat to George Mason’s 2014-15 campaign than a lack of talent. His biggest reason for confidence is 6-foot-8, 244-pound senior center Erik Copes.

“I don’t think people are expecting much out of [Copes], but he’s had a great offseason,” Hewitt said. “I think he has a chance to fulfill a lot of the promise that he showed when he walked in the door here three years ago. … If he stays healthy, I think he can be as good as anybody in this league.”

ESPN ranked Copes the 56th-best high school prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. His senior year in Philadelphia, he led Imhotep Charter to a state title and earned first-team all-state honors. This resume created high expectations for Copes, which he has since failed to realize for a variety of reasons.

Copes cracked the Patriots’ rotation as a freshman, playing 15 minutes a game, but a labral tear in his hip in the last practice before the conference tournament stalled his momentum.

Copes underwent surgery on April 19, 2012, and the seven months between then and the following season weren’t enough for his hip to heal. After serving a three-game suspension for “student-athlete conduct violations,” Copes returned in November and said he played his sophomore season “on one leg” and overweight.

“After I had hip surgery, I pigged out,” he said.

George Mason’s roster lists Copes at 240 pounds, but he confessed the scale read 268 when he came back from his injury. Hewitt admitted Copes probably should’ve sat out the year. Instead, he averaged 5.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 25 minutes a game — acceptable numbers considering his health, but any optimism they created was crushed by his junior campaign.

Copes again faced suspension to start the season for violating team rules, this time for six games.

“Getting in trouble always messes with your head as an athlete,” he said.

His production dipped to 4.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes a game, which Hewitt blamed on poor conditioning.

“I thought last year [Copes] just wasn’t in very good shape, to be quite honest with you,” Hewitt said. “He wasn’t ready to play. … I just think he sabotaged himself.”

Copes’ rising weight and falling effectiveness stemmed from a lack of motivation.

“I thought I lost my passion to play last year,” he said. “I only wanted to play sometimes.”

Those times were few and far between, but when they came, Copes occasionally showed flashes of brilliance. He grabbed double-digit boards five times last season, including a 12-point, 15-rebound effort to lead the Patriots to a win over Massachusetts. Another uncharacteristic 10-point, nine-rebound performance against No. 19 Saint Louis helped force overtime and nearly an upset.

Knowing his own potential, Copes felt disgusted with himself entering the offseason.

“After we lost last year, I was in a bad place,” he said. “I thought I was a better player than I showed.”

Talks with his brother and Handy Handerahan, George Mason’s men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach, refocused Copes. This summer, he “just worked his tail off,” Hewitt said, simply aspiring to be the best player he could be.

Copes awoke at 6 a.m. every day to train. As he ran up and down the Patriot Center steps to start each morning, flashbacks of his 17-year-old-self — preceding every school day with a two-mile run before his senior season at Imhotep — reassured Copes that his extra effort wouldn’t be in vain.

Back then, Copes wanted to win a state championship. He did. And the hundreds of hours he spent running, lifting, jumping rope, pushing a sled and drilling a punching bag this offseason makes Handerahan think Copes will also accomplish his latest goal.

“[Copes] tried to become a very high-level player,” Handerahan said, “and he did succeed at doing that.”

Copes said he reached 244 pounds this summer by losing 15, but Handerahan explained that his weight had dropped as low as the mid-230s before he regained some in the weight room.

“He’s gotten in great shape,” Hewitt said. “He’s in much better physical condition than I think he ever has been. And because of his conditioning, I think he’ll be able to stay on the court longer, stay out of foul trouble and, overall, he’ll be a much more effective player.”

Copes not only showed off quicker feet, but also an improved jump shot this August as George Mason went unbeaten in four exhibition games in Spain.

“What we’re trying to do is get him to play the way that he played in Spain for the whole year because if he plays that,” junior forward Jalen Jenkins said, “I don’t see a big man in the A-10 that can stop him.”

But the pounds of sweat that Copes shed this summer won’t be able to reap rewards until the season starts. And when it does, no matter what the polls predict, Copes plans to compete for a championship, again.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” Copes said. “I don’t care if they got us picked 13th to win the league. … None of that stuff really matters. At the end of day, what matters is when the lights come on and the ball goes in the air, who’s going to bring their game and not their name.”

• David Daniels can be reached at ddaniels@washingtontimes.com.

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