- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

DENVER Watch any George Mason basketball game and chances are the grinning Folarin Campbell will stand out.

It could be for knocking down a 3-pointer. It could be he’s pointing out yet again assistant coach Eric Konkol has a large head or likening assistant Michael Huger to Nino Brown, Wesley Snipes’ character in New Jack City.

Most of the time, Campbell said, it’s the product of being raised a positive person.

This week, there doesn’t even need to be a reason. After all, Campbell helped the 12th-seeded Patriots (23-10) win the CAA tournament to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament’s East regional opposite fifth-seeded Notre Dame (24-7) tonight at Pepsi Center.

He brings that kind of mentality, George Mason guard Dre Smith said. If you’re around him and you’re not having fun, I don’t know what’s wrong with you because he’s going to laugh and joke and have fun. He’s been here. He has the experiences. So this is like a walk in the park for him.

Indeed, no George Mason player is as familiar with the postseason as Campbell. He scored in double figures in each of the Patriots’ NCAA tournament games two years ago as part of a memorable Final Four run.

But this time around, things are different. Campbell, along with fellow 2006 holdover Will Thomas, emerged as one of the faces fans easily could connect to George Mason. It is very much his team, right down to the primary ballhandling duties he assumed in mid-December.

It’s also no surprise. Campbell acted as something of a basketball Swiss Army knife throughout his career, playing every position but center. But just as he can hold sway over the Patriots through the force of his upbeat personality, he does the same on the floor with the ball in his hands.

It means a lot, Campbell said. Being the ballhandler means you control the tempo of the game. You control your team, and if you’re calm, your team will be calm. If you’re rushing, your team will be rushing. With me as the leader on this team, I feel if I’m handling the ball, I can control everything.

So he has, ensuring he received a second NCAA tournament shot even though his first postseason experience was enough to satisfy even the most avaricious player for a career.

It meant stabilizing a team with a frustrating tendency to alternate good performances with forgettable ones. It meant finding the right way to balance scoring (15.9 points) and distributing (3.3 assists) while leading the Patriots in both.

And it meant doing it his way, in a manner befitting coach Jim Larranaga’s description of Campbell as our Magic Johnson the upbeat, versatile pied piper who has helped George Mason build upon its popularity from two years ago.

He embraces the public, Larranaga said. He’s not shy. He’s not reserved. He is loquacious. He is friendly. He is engaging. It’s not because he’s special. He makes you feel like you’re special. That’s a great gift.

His many gifts have benefited George Mason for four seasons. He ranks fourth on the school’s career assists list and seventh in points.

Plus, he has infused his optimistic approach throughout a team that already hears plenty of positive thoughts from Larranaga.

He’s a basketball player true to heart, Smith said. He enjoys the competition. He enjoys having all the pressure on him. He wants it. It’s very hard to find players like that right now. Nobody wants the pressure. They want all of the glory but none of the pressure, but he wants that.

Campbell has a chance at both tonight against the Fighting Irish. His MVP performance at the CAA tournament only amplifies the attention he will receive from Notre Dame, but it also ensured the chance to follow-up on the 2006 Final Four appearance and finish his career in the NCAA tournament.

This could be our last game, and we don’t want it to be our last game, so we’re going to go out there and play hard and still enjoy it, Campbell said. This is college basketball. You play to have fun. Even though everybody wants to win, you still have to enjoy it, and that’s what we’re going to do.

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