Patriots fill gaps

Three of George Mason’s stars from its 2006 Final Four run were seniors, and it took the Patriots a couple of seasons to return to the NCAA tournament.

With the last two mainstays of that memorable team - Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas - gone, the Patriots would like to dispense with even a modest wait this time.

Mason, minus Campbell and Thomas from last season’s CAA tournament champions, was picked fourth in the 12-team league in a preseason poll of coaches, sports information directors and media unveiled Wednesday during the conference’s media day.

Virginia Commonwealth, which returns conference player of the year Eric Maynor and won last year’s regular-season crown, is the preseason favorite in a league that has sent four different programs to the NCAA tournament in the last three years.

Whether the Patriots (23-11 in 2007-08) can repeat as league champions depends on how they fill the gaps Campbell and Thomas left behind.

“If we had Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell returning, I think it would be a little easier,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “But we have a lot of good guys returning and a good recruiting class, so we know that’s one of our goals. That won’t change. We just know that will be a little more complicated.”

It doesn’t hurt that the Patriots bring back a defense-oriented roster.

Guard John Vaughan and forward Chris Fleming are among the best defenders in the CAA. Dre Smith still provides a serious threat on the perimeter, Louis Birdsong’s role will expand with Thomas gone, and Cam Long could prove to be the point guard the Patriots need in the wake of Campbell’s departure.

In short, the rest of the CAA doesn’t expect Mason to disappear or endure its first losing season in conference play since 1997-98.

“I think they’re going to be good,” Georgia State coach Rod Barnes said. “I think they’re going to use their depth more than in the past. Some of those guys played a lot of minutes and were cornerstones, but I think those guys laid a really good foundation for the guys to come. They’re going to be right up in the mix like they always are, but there’s going to be new names.”

The Patriots, though, find themselves in a quickly shifting league. Northeastern returns five starters and was picked to finish second, and Georgia State could surge as it adds five transfers from power conferences who sat out last year under NCAA rules.

So even for Mason - one of the CAA’s pillars of certainty under Larranaga - there is some doubt how things will unfold.

“Other than VCU, I think it’s a crapshoot,” Towson coach Pat Kennedy said. “I think it’s very wide open.”

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