With frontcourt stalwarts Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison having graduated, George Mason men's basketball program has a sizable interior hole.
Wide-bodied rising sophomore Erik Copes is poised to fill it.
The highest rated college basketball prospect ever to suit up for the Fairfax program, the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Copes flashed his defensive presence credentials throughout his freshman season. Seven blocks in a single half against Drexel comes to mind.
On a team missing three starters from last season's 24-win team, on a team without a senior in the primary rotation, opportunity exists for new focal points to emerge. Outside of wing scorer Sherrod Wright, Copes tops that particular list.
"If he stays healthy, I think he has a chance to be that breakout guy," said George Mason coach Paul Hewitt, referring to both Copes' defensive-presence upside plus the concussion and hip injury that limited the Philadelphia native in stretches last season.
Copes averaged nearly two blocked shots a game despite playing only 15 minutes per contest, a number limited in part because of that upperclassman duo. Offensively, we can charitably deem Copes' skill set as raw; rarely did he score (3.3 points) on anything other than a dunk or putback, tallied only three assists and his free throw percentage was a paltry 41.9 percent.
Physically, Copes showed his conference foes he was ready to go.
"If they hadn't had the two seniors, he would have played even more minutes as a freshman," Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said of Copes. "He was very impressive physically. He's gifted, nice strength, movement ability. They probably have their eyeballs on him as a sophomore picking up minutes as the interior presence."
No doubt coach Taylor, no doubt - that is, if Copes can stay on the court. Last season he missed six games, five straight midseason, and Mason's CAA Tournament loss against VCU.
"Last year he got off to a really good start," Hewitt said. 'He started playing his best basketball in that game against Drexel when he had seven blocked shots in the first half only to suffer a concussion in the second half and missed five games. He was not quite himself coming back from that concussion and then he when he got it going again he hurt his hip in practice before the CAA Tournament was going to begin."
Copes underwent surgery in May and "so far he's made great recovery, he's back in practice going full tilt," Hewitt said.
Those also tasked with taking on a larger role up front include junior forward Jonathan Arledge, who started twice and played 31 games last season. Redshirt junior Johnny Williams, who played 62 games over his first two seasons, returns to action with a slimmed-down look after sitting out last season with a shoulder injury. Skilled 6-foot-8 Serbian freshman Marko Gujanicic rounds out the likely heart of Hewitt's rotation.
Wright and Vertrail Vaughns are the Patriots top two leading returning scorers while fellow guards Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards direct traffic from the point. Incoming freshman and All-Met Player of the Year Patrick Holloway brings additional scoring pop.
"Everybody has holes to fill; every kid on my team is going to be in a new role," Taylor said. "But, if you look at Mason, they pretty much got things situated. They just need to fill the interior situation."
"When you lose the Player of the Year, that's significant," Hewitt said. "You don't just overlook that. But, its part of what college basketball is all about. Every year there's going to be that exciting new freshman. Fans and people who support your program are looking for that kid who is going to make that jump from his sophomore to his junior year and become a program player.
"Losing Ryan and Mike in particular is going to hurt us. At the same time, I think we've got a core of big guys more than capable of replacing them."
Erik Copes, in particular.