Anyone who watched George Mason play early in the season would have a difficult time believing the Patriots were the Colonial Athletic Association's preseason favorite.
They lost to lightly regarded Florida Atlantic and Florida International. They needed overtime to beat now 3-13 Rhode Island. Their most impressive win was a four-point victory over solid but hardly fearsome Bucknell.
That George Mason has emerged from its early-season malaise to look the part of CAA favorite is the league's biggest story in mid-January. The Patriots (12-4, 4-0) defeated fellow CAA contenders Old Dominion and Georgia State last week to become the league's lone remaining undefeated team.
The dominance of star forward Ryan Pearson, the emergence of secondary scorers Mike Morrison and Vertrail Vaughns and an increased commitment to defense have played a role in George Mason's success, but coach Paul Hewitt doesn't cite any of those as the main reason for the Patriots' improvement.
"I'd say it's the gradual development of our point guards," he said.
Indeed a position that was clearly George Mason's biggest weakness earlier in the season is becoming more of a strength. Whereas the Patriots committed an average of 18 turnovers in their four losses this season, they've turned it over 11 or fewer times in three of the past four games and the point guards have done a better job of setting up Pearson in places where he likes to score.
Sophomore Bryon Allen has improved on his decision making and emerged as the team's top playmaker. Jet-quick freshman Corey Edwards has been more reliable while still showing flashes of promise since returning from a December concussion. And incumbent starter Andre Cornelius is beginning to round into form again off the bench after serving a 10-game suspension to start the season.
"As our point guard play has improved, our team has improved," Hewitt said. "The longer I'm around this — and I believed before but I really believe now — the most important position on the floor is to have a solid point guard who can run your offense, take care of the ball and get the ball to guys. That's made a big difference for us."
What excites Hewitt most is that he sees an opportunity for George Mason's point guard play to continue to improve as Cornelius becomes more comfortable.
Cornelius averaged 9.5 points per game and sunk a team-best 61 three-pointers last year, but Hewitt suspended him for the first 10 games of the season after an offseason arrest on charges of credit card larceny. The 5-foot-10 senior was frustrated to be coming off the bench and overanxious to atone for his absence when he first returned in late-December, but he scored 20 points on Jan. 2 against William & Mary and drew praise from Hewitt for his play last week despite poor shooting.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the starting lineup at some point," Hewitt said. "I think he's really starting to settle in and get an understanding of what we're trying to do offensively. And defensively he can be very, very disruptive.
"I've compared him very favorably to Will Bynum. When we had Bynum at (Georgia) Tech, that was a guy who in my mind was unguardable. And then on the defensive end, he was so quick and so alert, he could get steals and turn them into easy buckets. So Andre is starting to settle in but he does have room for improvement. And as he gets better, I think our ball club can get better."