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January 14, 2013HARRISONBURG - George Mason coach Paul Hewitt considers James Madison to be his Patriots' biggest rival because, he says, it's the game that Mason fans and alumni seem to care about most.
James Madison coach Matt Brady? He'd like to see his Dukes beat the Patriots a few times before using the "R" word.
"It's a non-rivalry," Brady said Monday at his weekly press conference. "Until there's a give and take, there's no rivalry."
The most lopsided recent series against any Colonial Athletic Association team, JMU has dropped 18 of the last 19 meetings with George Mason. The only time since 2005 that JMU has won was in February 2009 - Brady's first season. The last time JMU won in Fairfax was in 2003.
But when the teams meet again Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at the Patriot Center for the first of two annual matchups, it's the Dukes (9-8 overall, 3-1 in the CAA) who are ahead in the conference standings - for a change.
"I don't think we've started like this in a while," JMU point guard Devon Moore said, "So to be 3-1, it's really a good feeling and good getting into the rest of this conference."
Moore and the Dukes actually began 3-1 in 2010-11 (they moved to 5-1 before losing again), but, like beating Mason, quick starts are rare. This is just the second season since 1999-2000 that the Dukes have started 3-1 or better.
In non-conference play this year, George Mason (9-7, 2-2) was the best team in a weak CAA, but the Patriots have been inconsistent early within the league. On Saturday, they lost at UNC-Wilmington, the same team JMU crushed Wednesday in the Convocation Center.
"We've got a good team and we've got good potential, we've just been a bit inconsistent," said Hewitt, who didn't have a definitive answer of why his team hasn't been able to string together quality performances.
Leading the Patriots is Sherrod Wright, a guard who was a reserve last year but was still picked in the preseason as an all-league player. The 6-foot-4 junior is "playing as well as anybody I've ever coached," said Hewitt, who took Georgia Tech to the National Championship game in 2004 and has sent more than a handful of players to the NBA.
Wright is averaging 17.7 points per game. No other Patriot totals more than 7.4 per contest. Still, Brady thinks Mason is deep and dangerous.
"I don't that it's unbalanced so much as they have one dominant scorer," Brady said. "What they have is seven guys that can get 20 in a game, and that's not tongue-in-cheek: they literally have seven guys that can get 20 points in a game. And what Coach Hewitt has decided to do is he's going to play a lot of guys a lot of minutes and try to wear you down with depth and backcourt pressure and size in the frontcourt."
No Patriot except Wright has scored 20 in a game this season, but every one of the 12 players Hewitt uses has reached at least 10.
Madison's depth, meanwhile, isn't what it could be. Senior forward Andrey Semenov has been out since Jan. 2 with what was initially diagnosed as a sprained left ankle. He underwent an MRI on Monday to determine if the injury is more serious. Freshman swingman Charles Cooke will be out the rest of the month with a fractured left wrist. Freshman guard Andre Nation missed Saturday's win over Drexel with an injured shoulder; he's been cleared to play Tuesday, but Brady expects Nation to be limited.
George Mason has a clean bill of health. Starting center Erik Copes missed the loss at UNCW with a hip injury but will be active Tuesday.
Brady griped about his team's year-after-year injury woes, using them to explain why the "non-rivalry" has been tilted so heavily toward Mason in recent years.
"I'd like it to be flipped," Brady said. "I'd like to be able to play 12 guys that we practiced with in October. That hasn't happened. Every year we've played them, they've had their starting five. The first team that's played in the first game has been the team that's played against us both [games]. I've done the research."
The Dukes were able to overcome a thin roster Saturday by beating Drexel with defense. JMU allowed 43 points - the fewest in a game since 2001 - and now leads the CAA in average points allowed during conference games (54). While JMU and Mason played two high-scoring games last year (89-83 in Harrisonburg and 89-79 later in Fairfax), Tuesday night's Comcast Sports Net-televised game shapes up to be more defensive. Mason's 63.2 points per game allowed including both CAA and non-conference games is tops in the league.
One major drawback of the Pats' defense is its propensity to foul. Mason draws a league-most 20.7 fouls per game, and Hewitt admitted he's "very concerned" about it, particularly silly fouls away from the basket at the end of games.
A single foul call or free-throw could prove decisive. Though Mason has dominated the Dukes in terms of wins and losses, the individual games have been close. Three of the last eight meetings were decided by two points.
"We just want to put together wins, man," said JMU senior Rayshawn Goins, who has led the Dukes in scoring six straight nights. "Whether it's by one or by 10. Just going into Mason with the same mindset [as against Drexel], that we're going to go in and get a win whether it's by one or by 10, and just grind it out possession by possession."
Interestingly enough, the all-time series favors JMU 46-42, as the Dukes won 11 straight in the early 1990s.
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