Return from hip injury has been quite painful

A surgically repaired hip has rendered George Mason's Erik Copes a shadow of the shot-blocking defensive force he was in his freshman year.

But even in a lesser state, Copes' presence in the middle of the lane has been critical this season for the Patriots. There was no better evidence of his value than Saturday in an 82-74 loss at UNC Wilmington. With Copes sidelined, the Patriots lost the battle of the boards 51-27, their biggest final deficit since the turn of the century.

"Frustrating, very frustrating, watching that game knowing my team needed me out there," Copes said. "I'm trying to stay focused, stay positive."

Up next
James Madison at George Mason
When » Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where » Patriot Center

Copes knew recovery from surgery would be a long process. According to Dr. Thomas Byrd of Nashville, Tenn., who performed the procedure April 19, Copes had femoroacetabular impingement, a condition in which the hip bones are abnormally formed. Over time, they rub against each other and cause damage to the joint. As a result, Copes tore his right labrum in three places last year.

"The injury was just the final straw in a process that had more to do with the way his hips were formed," Byrd said. "It's kind of like the front end of a car being a little out of alignment. It leads to uneven tread wear, and you kind of throw off a piece of tread, and that's when it starts giving you trouble."

After a summer of inactivity, Copes received medical clearance to play this year but with warnings that there would be soreness. Copes describes the pain as a "pinching" sensation.

"I don't want to say I should have redshirted. I don't think that," Copes said. "It's just pain that I've got to push through."

The 6-foot-8, 245-pound Copes is averaging 4.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, similar production to last year prorated over 40 minutes. But it's Copes' blocked shot numbers that show his lack of explosion. Last year, he averaged 5.0 blocks per 40 minutes and ranked ninth in the nation in block percentage (13.2). This year Copes is averaging 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes and ranks 70th in block percentage (9.0).

Copes will be in the lineup Tuesday when George Mason (9-7, 2-2) plays host to rival James Madison (9-8, 3-1), but Patriots coach Paul Hewitt said he will monitor Copes' activity and limit his minutes. One of Copes' best games came on Jan. ?3 against Northeastern when he had seven points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a season-high 32 minutes. But Copes struggled in his next two games, leading to his sitting out Saturday.

"He was medically OK'ed, but if you're not effective, you're not effective," Hewitt said. "Hopefully we'll get that soreness out of there by giving him a few days off."

Byrd, who has been the Tennessee Titans' team doctor since 1997, said there is little threat of getting injured again and chalks up Copes' soreness to his work ethic.

"He's a hard-working kid. I think if he wasn't pushing it so hard, he might not be having the soreness and stiffness," Byrd said. "It's understandable with all the bone correction we did to give him a better hip."