In recent weeks in the halls of the Patriot Center, George Mason coach Paul Hewitt has found something on his mind whenever he encounters forward Marko Gujanicic.
The freshman is supposed to be a crucial piece of the Patriots' frontcourt rotation. He's instead struggled with foul trouble and spotty play around the basket.
"Every time I'm walking around, I ask him 'Are you Marko?'" Hewitt said Tuesday night. "'I want to make sure because you're not playing like the guy I recruited here.'"
Hewitt smiled. So did Sherrod Wright and Gujanicic to his right. They all had reason to chuckle, what with Gujanicic collecting his first career double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) in Mason's 68-57 defeat of James Madison at the Patriot Center.
But there was also an underlying truth that isn't so funny for Mason (10-7, 3-2 CAA). The Patriots' frontcourt isn't the rock-solid entity it was last year, and as a result Mason can ill-afford quiet nights from the Serbian import.
That was especially true against the Dukes (9-9, 3-2). Erik Copes fouled out in nine minutes. Jonathan Arledge logged only two minutes for what Hewitt said was struggles in handling the press the Patriots anticipated from Madison.
For his part, Gujanicic was coming off three tepid games and didn't overwhelm in the first half, picking up three fouls.
"I'm not trying to say it's been an adjustment or something like that," Gujanicic said. "Even if it's not an adjustment and I just play bad, I'm really thinking about my game and not about 'I need some time to adapt.' I really think it's about how focused you are and how much you really want to play. I'm not saying I didn't want to play when I had bad games. I'm just saying maybe I didn't want it enough or I didn't express it in the right way. I'm glad I played this game the way how I play."
When it came down to it, what Gujanicic really did was hit two crucial shots and avoid fouling out.
Mason trailed for much of the night until Gujanicic connected on a 3-pointer with 8:41 to play. Two minutes later, he drilled another 3-pointer to hand the Patriots a lead they would never relinquish.
"He's really been trying hard and probably, like our team, he's a little anxious because we're not as fluid as we want to be," Hewitt said. "For him to make that first 3 was a big weight off his shoulders."
The second 3-pointer was a spark in what became a 10-0 run, turning a game James Madison had controlled into one Mason led 59-50. The Dukes would never again close within five.
Gujanicic would play the final 4:55 with four fouls, a development that was a bit unexpected in light of his nine-minute, five-foul outing Thursday against Old Dominion. It was definite progress for the newcomer, who is needed to provide a scoring lift for a frontcourt that's combined for five individual double-digit scoring nights in the last 11 games.
"I know it's been a problem for me for the last couple games," Gujanicic said of the foul issues. "It might be the difference between Europe and here. I really don't know. It might be because of my defense. I spoke with coach about everything about that, and he told me before there's going to be problems with that sometimes and just to stay strong and keep playing."
Tuesday marked Gujanicic's second double-digit scoring night of the season. He compiled only the second double-double of the season for Mason. And he finally looked at ease, strange as it seems, after he picked up his fourth foul.
Regardless of the circumstances, Hewitt finally had his answer to just where Marko was.
Now, he needs to hope it's a sign of more to come before the season is through.
"This is one game," Gujanicic said. "I can't even say it's a beginning. There was never supposed to be that bad period."