The Patriots take the court tonight against Cornell University in their season opener. Mason is a school aided by the development and exposure around the rise of the basketball program, but the general feeling around Fairfax is one of apathy.
A season after Mason moved conferences from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10, there was buzz around the potential for the men’s basketball team to step up into the national spotlight and regain the recognition of years’ past. The A-10 sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, and the hope around Mason was that the Patriots would garner a bid to the tournament.
All the pieces were in place with seniors Byron Allen, Sherrod Wright and Jonathan Arledge ready to make one final push at a postseason tournament bid. Allen struggled to regain the top form he showed in his junior season. Wright retained the scoring prowess he showed in seasons’ past but never developed enough of a well-rounded game, and Arledge was plagued by injuries after a breakout junior season and is now playing out his collegiate basketball career at Old Dominion University.
The team ultimately finished their inaugural season in the A-10 with an opening conference tournament round loss to Fordham University and a season record of 11-20.
The Mason team that will take the court tonight is a team in flux. From preseason scrimmages and games, it is projected that there will likely be no seniors in the starting lineup. This is a young and untested Mason team going into a conference stocked with perennial mid-major national tournament contenders.
There are cries from fans of the team that see this season as Head Coach Paul Hewitt’s make-or-break season, but in the Sept. 8 issue of Fourth Estate, Athletic Director Brad Edwards reaffirmed his confidence in Hewitt’s status as coach for this season and beyond.
“[Hewitt] is an excellent coach, and he is our coach,” Edwards said. “We are fully behind Coach Hewitt.”
In the preseason poll of the A-10, Mason was selected to finish 13th out of 14 teams. With a less experienced starting lineup and a shift in offensive philosophy to the triangle offense, Mason men’s basketball team is looking at an uphill battle in the 2014-15 season.
Projected Starting Lineup:
G: Marquise Moore
G: Patrick Holloway
F: Jalen Jenkins
F: Marko Gujanicic
F: Shevon Thompson
This is the lineup that Coach Hewitt fielded in their single preseason game against Shenandoah University — with the exception of Holloway who, according to reports, was sitting out due to violations of team conduct.
During Mason Madness interviews and preseason practices, all the players spoke of Coach Hewitt’s focus on transitioning to the triangle offense — popularized by Phil Jackson, former head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and current president of the New York Knicks. The triangle offense is a strategy intended to space out the defense and cover-up for weaknesses in a team’s personnel with ball movement to wear down defenses.
Holloway, a junior, will be looked upon by Hewitt and fans to be the offensive catalyst for the Patriots this season and expand his role from his sixth man position last season to the team’s go-to scorer. As a redshirt freshman, Jenkins showed last season at times to be the team’s most dynamic player. Moore looks to increase his impact in the Patriots’ offense after his freshman season coming off the bench in relief of Allen and Wright. Thompson has seemed to pass senior Erik Copes on the depth chart following a season for Copes marred with a suspension and injury. Gujanicic is the wild card of the lineup: he is seemingly the prototypical stretch four — with height and range from around the court — sought after by collegiate and professional coaches in today’s game, but has never fully put it together while at Mason.
There is a gaping hole in Mason’s lineup after losing their top two leading scorers from last season in Wright and Allen, so finding scorers will be a challenge all season.
Forwards Julian Royal and Erik Copes
Both Royal, a redshirt junior transfer, and Copes, a senior, were highly touted recruits before coming to Mason. Copes was the blue-chip recruit of Coach Hewitt’s inaugural season in Fairfax — ranking 56th overall in the nation by ESPN, and Royal was one of Hewitt’s last recruits at Georgia Tech before taking the job at Mason — himself rated 69th in the nation in his recruiting class by ESPN.
Both will look to provide scoring to Coach Hewitt’s lineup and earn spots in the starting lineup over the course of this season with what looks to be a flexible rotation.
Look to the Future:
Freshmen Trey Porter, Isaiah Jackson and Eric Lockett
With such a young lineup for Coach Hewitt, there will be spots that can be won for the entire roster. Mason has a class of freshmen with Porter, a near-7 foot center. Jackson and Lockett will be fighting for similar positions as the sixth man off the bench in relief of any of the guards.
These freshmen will be the building blocks for any future Mason team coached by Hewitt, and in a year with so many personnel decisions in limbo and low expectations, this is as good a year as any to get the freshmen players some on-court experience.
With such uncertainty in the lineup and few reliable scoring options, the Patriots will have to grind out their wins this season with tough, stout defensive play. Last season was supposed to be the culmination of seasons of patience, and Mason fans were left in disappointed with their team. From preseason predictions and workouts, Mason looks to be in for another season filled with nail-biter games and low-scoring affairs, which is not a sustainable recipe for success over the course of a season.
With a relatively tough out-of-conference schedule and a tough A-10, Mason will likely finish no better than 13th in the A-10 out of 14 teams.
Below are interviews out student media partners at Mason Cable Network conducted with Head Coach Paul Hewitt and forward Erik Copes at Mason Madness on Oct. 18. They talk about the challenges of the season ahead and more.