- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

George Mason probably won’t reach the Final Four as it did so astonishingly in 2006, but let’s give a rousing cheer to the Patriots as one of the region’s most consistent winners in men’s hoops circles.

Coach Jim Larranaga’s gang is 14-3 and alone atop the Colonial Athletic Association at 7-0 following Saturday’s 71-57 dispatching of state rival James Madison at Patriot Center. This will be Larranaga’s 11th consecutive winning season in Fairfax, which puts him at least in the same class with such local biggies as Gary Williams at Maryland and John Thompson III at Georgetown.

If you toss out George Mason’s 18-15 record during a rebuilding 2006-07 season, Larranaga is 64-22 since 2006, or a winning percentage of .740. His overall mark for 12 seasons is 221-134, with six appearances in the NCAA and NIT postseason fun and games. The man must be doing something, and perhaps everything, right.

So what if the CAA isn’t the ACC or Big East in terms of competition? All a team or coach can do is win at its or his own level, and the Patriots have accomplished that very well indeed.

George Mason has a tough week ahead with road games against its closest conference pursuers, Northeastern on Wednesday and Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday. The feeling here is that the Patriots will rise to the challenge because Larranaga’s teams have a tradition of doing that.

Just ask Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut - the Patriots’ unexpected victims during March Madness three years ago.

James Madison didn’t offer much of fight Saturday, principally because the 12-7 Dukes shot the ball as though they were taking aim from downtown Harrisonburg, Va. Their befuddled players hit 31.6 percent from the floor, according to dubious official stats, but those numbers must have been recorded by one of their mothers.

And don’t even mention 3-point shooting to coach Matt Brady unless you’d like a sock in the snoot. The Dukes were 6-for-26 in that department, frequently firing air balls from hither, thither and yon.

By way of previewing their overall ineptitude, James Madison didn’t score for the first 4:49 before senior forward Juwann James somehow drained a jumper. George Mason’s own offense didn’t exactly resemble an NBA team’s, but this one was all over after the Patriots went to the locker room at halftime with a 33-27 lead. The Dukes got no closer after intermission.

Junior forward Louis Birdsong, who had been slumping of late, canned seven of nine shots to lead the Patriots with 15 points. As a team, George Mason made 46 percent despite an offense that sometimes seemed to be poking along at half-speed. Yet for this gritty outfit, most portents are positive right now.

“Sometimes we think about going to the Final Four in ‘06,” Birdsong admitted, “but all we want to do is play well enough to get back to the NCAAs. We need to get more confident, play together better and trust each other more.”

As any coach would, Larranaga sees a need for improvement elsewhere as well.

“We played James Madison even on the boards [38-38], but we had been giving up too many seconds shots,” he said. “Defensively, we’d like to be able to press a little more and force more turnovers. And on offense, we need to find the open man on a more consistent basis.”

Don’t bet against any of it happening. Even if Larranaga and his Patriots don’t make it to Detroit for the NCAA tournament’s final weekend this spring, they usually manage to play better than they have a right to.

In public, anyway, refined Jim Larranaga doesn’t rant and rave at his team the way so many of his brethren do. He just gets the job done, and then some.