October 18, 2011
Paul Hewitt's primary reason for taking the George Mason job this spring wasn't that he enjoyed the Washington, D.C., area, that he liked the team the Patriots had coming back or that he wanted to leave the profession on his own terms.
His rationale is far more bold than that.
"There's only one thing left for me to do in college basketball, and that's try to win a national championship," Hewitt said on a conference call Tuesday. "I feel like we can do that here."
A declaration like that from a coach at a Colonial Athletic Association school might have inspired a few chuckles a decade ago, but Final Four runs from the likes of George Mason, Butler and VCU the past five years have silenced any remaining cynics. With so many of the nation's top programs relying on freshmen and sophomores, a well-coached mid-major with a talented, veteran roster can advance deep into the NCAA tournament.
"I just think college basketball has changed," Hewitt said. "I don't mind seeing these conferences get bigger and bigger. It creates more opportunities for the George Masons, the VCUs, the ODUs and whoever else makes a run that season. They're going to be recognized by that selection committee."
Whereas Butler, VCU and even Jim Larranaga's George Mason program rode overlooked prospects to the Final Four, it's noteworthy that Hewitt cites John Calipari's Memphis teams as his blueprint.
Hewitt is well aware hardly any program has captured a national championship without NBA-caliber talent on its roster. He cites George Mason's increased financial commitment to basketball, the school's location in the fertile D.C. area and his own track record for producing NBA talent as reasons the Patriots can compete for top 100 prospects.
Although Hewitt drew criticism at Georgia Tech for not parlaying his recruiting coups into successful seasons, every McDonald's All-American he landed either was drafted in the first round or signed at least a three-year NBA contract. Furthermore, more unheralded players like center Luke Schenscher and wings Anthony Morrow and Mario West also earned at least a brief look from NBA teams.
"We had a pretty good run there at Georgia Tech in terms of player development," Hewitt said.
"Kids are so acutely aware of who can help them. I look at Memphis as a model and look what John did there. I don't care what league you're in. If you can recruit talented players and show them you can help them develop their talent so they can earn a living playing the game of basketball, which has been a point of emphasis for me and my staff over the years, I think you can recruit top-level guys."
The reason a national title still drives Hewitt is because he's accomplished most of his other goals as a college coach. He led Siena to back-to-back MAAC titles in 1999 and 2000. He brought Georgia Tech to the NCAA tournament five times including a surprising run to the national title game in 2004.
When Hewitt sits down in the living room of a recruit and tells him and his parents that he intends to win a national championship at George Mason, he admits "their eyes get big" as though they're not sure it's possible.
"Nothing is more magical than making that run in March, especially when the public or the national media thinks it's a surprise," Hewitt said. "I tell them, 'You know you're a good player. If we get you, we're going to run up against a school that was recruiting you, so why not come here and do something that would be really special?'"