- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

Jim Larranaga sits beneath the basket in a sweltering gym, just as he has done thousands of times before. The George Mason logo is on his polo shirt, just as it has been on countless other recruiting trips. He watches prospects display their talents, just he has so many times in his two decades as a coach.

All the same. Only this time everything is different, too.

As he walks around the gym on the campus of Gallaudet University, which is playing host to a high school tournament, Larranaga no longer is an anonymous coach from a little-known school.

Larranaga tries to stay as inconspicuous as possible, but it’s a lost cause and has been ever since Larranaga astonished college basketball by taking the mid-major Patriots to the Final Four.

One man claims to remember watching Larranaga play as a collegian at Providence. A snack bar clerk fumbles around and is unable to make change for the 56-year-old coach across the counter ordering a candy bar. These days, Larranaga is recognized a lot more than he used to be.

“That I can tell you is an absolute yes,” Larranaga says. “And it is by everybody.”

Larranaga’s Patriots are no longer just another college basketball program. After their stunning run past powers Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut to reach the Final Four, George Mason now stands out in the endless blur of forgettable mid-major names — the Binghamtons and the Marists, among others — on the recruiting trail.

George Mason is hot, at least for a mid-major program. It will take a few years and a few recruiting classes to see whether the Patriots can maintain their newfound fame. But for now, George Mason is creating buzz among potential Patriots players well beyond the Fairfax campus.

“They are the gold standard for mid-major schools,” said Dave Telep, the national recruiting director for the Web site scout.com. “That is the real difference in recruiting circles. Now a kid will say, ‘I want to go to a big-time mid-major school like George Mason.’”

It’s new territory for the Virginia school, and it comes with uncertainties. What will its success and recognition mean? Can George Mason now lure some previously unattainable players? Can the program from the Colonial Athletic Association take those players away from big programs in major conference like the ACC and Big East?

Larranaga says he will use the same recruiting philosophy that took the program to the Final Four: The Patriots still will start locally — they have a recruit from Virginia and Maryland in the incoming, three-man class — and target a relatively small group of prospects.

“Hopefully more kids will be interested in us, and we will have an opportunity to be more selective. But I don’t think it will change who we want,” Larranaga says. “The one mistake you can make is you start believing you are something you are not. We know we are in the CAA. We know we have a beautiful school. We know we are in a prime geographic location, but we are in the CAA. We are not in the Big East, and kids will still tend to have an interest in those schools.”

The Patriots still will play the wait-and-see game when necessary like they did with current guard Folarin Campbell. Campbell was on his way to Georgetown until the Hoyas said they were no longer interested.

The incoming class largely was set before Patriots’ inspiring run through the NCAA tournament. Louis Birdsong, a 6-foot-6 forward and the MVP of the Baltimore Catholic League, and Darryl Monroe, a 6-7 junior college (Central Florida) player originally from Virginia Beach, committed before the season.

The Final Four appearance might, however, have helped secure Andre Smith, a junior college All-American from Cochise College in Arizona. The 6-foot guard, who averaged 23.1 points last season, had never heard of George Mason before receiving a letter from the Patriots last fall.

Smith was not particularly interested, but he decided to keep an open mind.

Larranaga and assistant coaches James Johnson and Chris Caputo made separate trips to the deserted area near the Mexican border to show they were serious. The athletic guard with 3-point range became intrigued when the Patriots made a rare nationally televised appearance on ESPN’s Bracket Busters, which highlights mid-majors, against Wichita State in February.

Smith was choosing between Mississippi State out of the SEC and a mid-major, Creighton. He visited George Mason the week after the Final Four for the celebratory parade. Soon, he dropped the idea of playing at Mississippi State, which regularly appears on national television.

Instead, he chose the Patriots.

“They were a ghost school,” Smith says. “They always had good players and good coaches and didn’t get recognized. Now they showed they have good players and got the recognition. They are no longer a ghost school.”

Smith liked the coaches and the playing style, and he bonded with the other players. He felt George Mason was the best place to pursue his goal of playing professionally.

The junior college star could begin to blaze a trail to Fairfax for higher-level recruits.

Telep sees a window of opportunity for the recently unheralded program. He believes George Mason will be a particularly appealing destination for transfers from big-time programs and that the Patriots could take some lower-priority recruits from major conferences.

“They have the opportunity to intermittently get a guy who otherwise they would have no shot,” Telep says. “When Kent State made the Elite Eight a few years ago, they were talked about. Mason made the Final Four. It is going to open up doors that were previously not open. I think it will have a time effect. For the next decade, they will be known as the [mid-major] team that made the Final Four when no one else could. Their visibility and street cred is at an all-time high.”

Not that anyone expects the Patriots to take away high school All-Americans and top recruits from Maryland or Georgetown. However, they may now be able to compete with them and other big-time programs for the fourth or fifth player in a recruiting class.

While it will take time to see how George Mason’s Final Four run affects recruiting, there is no doubt the Patriots can start selling their message more quickly. Larranaga’s face and the George Mason logo are now known trademarks — no matter what sweaty, out-of-the-way gym they appear in.

“It is instant recognition,” says Caputo, who gets stopped all the time when he wears team gear. “We don’t have to explain who we are and what league we come from.”

All because they have a recruiting tool that no other mid-major — not even Gonzaga, the standard-bearer for such programs — can claim.

“It was pretty cool seeing the school recruiting you playing in the Final Four,” Smith says. “It has to have an impact.”

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