- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jim Larranaga’s offseason provided him with a lesson in the value of patience. If he can impart it to his team, George Mason again could emerge as a contender in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Despite losing several key pieces after a 22-11 season, the Patriots were picked fourth in the 12-team conference’s preseason poll revealed Tuesday.

Larranaga, though, is one of the league’s constants. He has led George Mason to four NCAA tournament berths in the past 11 seasons and has become a recognizable face in college basketball. But in April, he underwent hip replacement surgery, and his rehab went well until a few weeks back, when he spent almost a full day on his feet.

“I went to the doctor, and he said, ‘You bruised it. You stood on it too long,’ ” Larranaga said. “So the bone is strong enough, and I have to rest a little bit more than I’d like.”

He has plenty of work in front of him since anchors Darryl Monroe, Dre Smith and John Vaughan are all gone for last year’s bunch, which lost in the CAA title game and earned an NIT invitation.

The Patriots’ roster contains just three upperclassmen, a dramatic shift from the veteran outfits George Mason fielded in recent years. But junior point guard Cam Long, a preseason all-conference pick and the Patriots’ leader in scoring, assists and steals last season, returns and will be counted upon for stability.

That’s especially true in the early part of the season, when Long will be one of the few players in a familiar role.

“This is a real test for him to be able to not only play well himself, not only help the other players on the team play well but also have the patience to know there’s going to be some mistakes made and some days we don’t play as well as we’d like,” Larranaga said.

Old Dominion, which returns five starters from a 25-10 team, was picked to win the conference, with Northeastern second. Virginia Commonwealth lost guard Eric Maynor to graduation and coach Anthony Grant to Alabama but brings back big man Larry Sanders and hired Shaka Smart from Florida. The Rams, last year’s champs, were picked third.

“I really think you can throw the top three or four in a hat and shake them up and someone might have a different opinion,” Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. “There’s a number of teams that return a lot of people, and we’re one of them, and we also have a marquee player in Gerald Lee. Those two factors together [help], but also I think if you track the last five years in particular, it’s hard to bet against us not being at least a factor in this.”

The top of the conference might not change much; the projected top four teams, which occupied the top four spots last season, bring back a combined 16 starters. That concentration of talent could be enough for the CAA to produce a team worthy of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the third time since 2006.

“That’s a lot of experience and firepower returning for an encore performance,” Larranaga said. “What I’m saying is the league is probably at its very best and could surpass the ‘05-‘06 season not only of the CAA but of the Missouri Valley, who had four teams invited to the Big Dance that year.”

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