Basketball's Vaughns reflects on last season and looks ahead
Under Paul Hewitt’s new regime in Fairfax, the George Mason men’s basketball team went 24-9, 14-4 in CAA competition, and were ousted in the second round of the conference tournament by rival VCU. They fell short of reaching both the NCAA and NIT post-season competitions.
However, players like rising redshirt junior Vertrail Vaughns are hoping for brighter things in the future.
“We had a rocky start during the beginning of the season, but got better as the season went on,” Vaughns said. “We could’ve done a lot better. Last season is over. It’s time to concentrate on the new season. “
Unfortunately for the Patriots, next season means the departure of CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson, along with fellow graduates Mike Morrison, who is now playing professionally oversees in Belgium, and Andre “DJ” Cornelius.
“Losing Mike, Ryan and DJ was tough loss, they were our seniors,” Vaughns said. “We looked up to them as leaders when we needed answers. Each one of them brought a unique style of play to the game. We lost three great players.”
Pearson led the team in both points and rebounds, averaging 17.0 and 8.2 respectively en route to his conference MVP honors. Morrison was second on the team in both categories, averaging 9.8 points and 6.6 rebounds. Cornelius provided an important spark for the team as a starting guard and averaged 6.7 points.
That is a lot to lose from one graduating class.
“Now we as team have to step up to the challenges next year and face them together,” Vaughns said. “But I wish Ryan, Mike and DJ the best of luck with their careers after Mason.”
Pearson, Morrison and Cornelius are now the past, as Mason basketball transitions into the new era of Vaughns, Sherrod Wright, Bryon Allen and Vaughn Gray in the backcourt along with a very talented frontcourt of Erik Copes, Jonathon Arledge and Johnny Williams.
Wright is the team’s leading returning scorer, averaging 9.6 per contest last season, including the legendary game-winning buzzer-beater against VCU in the Patriot Center.
Vaughns, despite starting all 33 games for the Patriots, had a down year offensively as a redshirt sophomore, as compared to his stellar output as a redshirt freshman in his role coming off the bench. Two years ago, Vaughns averaged .500 from three-point range, but his percentage dropped off to .356 this past season.
“I played extremely hard on defense and I encouraged my teammates. But offensively I did not play as well I did last year,“ Vaughns said.
Although he had a down year by his standards, he did lead the team in scoring, or at least share the lead, four times over the course of the season, including a 21 point outing against FAU on Nov. 11.
But, understanding he didn’t perform up to his potential, Vaughns looks at last season as a great experience because he had the opportunity to start every game and get more of a feel for college basketball. He also now knows what he needs to do to improve in the off-season to help his team win more games.
“There are few things I could’ve done better, like getting my teammates involved early and consistently throughout the game,” he said. “I could’ve handled the ball more and attacked the basket, which is what I will be working on during the summer.”
Part of the problem with Vaughns’ drop-off in shooting percentage from beyond the arc was a result of defenses planning for his long-range shot and not respecting the drive.
“I need to be more aggressive when I’m handling the ball to create shots for my teammates and me,” Vaughns said.
If he is able to improve off the dribble over the summer, he can be a very difficult player for defenses to handle due to his ability to knock down threes.
Not only would Vaughns like to improve his skills, he would also like to become more of a vocal presence in the Patriots’ locker room and on the court.
“I’ve always felt like a leader on this team. But next year I will have bigger role on and off the court. I will have to be more of leader. I will have a more talkative role.”
Although next year’s team will have no seniors, it will be full of veteran players, including four redshirt juniors. Joining Vaughns in that department will be Sherrod Wright, Johnny Williams and Paris Bennett.
“Communication is the key to any team’s success. Not just me but all of the redshirt juniors will have to become leaders for the team next year, “ Vaughns said.
Vaughns personal goal for next season is to play hard for 40 minutes in every game. This is a very simple concept, but far from easy to actually put into action. His goal for the team is to win the CAA Tournament, something this past years’ graduating class never experienced.
Next year will not be easy, however, as they have a very difficult regular season schedule planned. The Patriots will be playing Maryland, Virginia, Richmond, Bucknell and Northern Iowa, and will be participating in the Paradise Jam pre-season tournament.
Wins in these games will look good to the NCAA selection committee, giving them more hope for an at-large bid to the Big Dance. On the other hand, even if the Patriots struggle early in the season, they ought to be ready to go once conference play begins, making Vaughns’ goal of a conference title more achievable.
Though college basketball is often a full-time job, Vaughns is a member of Mason’s integrative studies program, the New Century College (NCC), and is majoring in Information and Society. He takes a variety of information technology classes as he has a strong interest in computers.
“The professors in the NCC program are so hands on and helpful with the things that you don’t understand,” Vaughns said. “The courses in the program are helpful as well because you learn and experience things in the classroom that will happen in the real world.”
The NCC program is designed to give students experiential learning and to create their own interdisciplinary majors in fields that interest them.
“I would recommend the NCC program to other students because it’s going in the right direction as far as helping students graduate and helping students learn the material they need for future jobs.”
Aside from studying computer information, Vaughns has a big year ahead of him as one of the faces of the new-look Patriots team. Next year’s team may be without Pearson, Morrison and Cornelius, but it will certainly not be lacking in talent.