The Washington Times - March 16, 2011, 10:25AM

Cam Long remembers plenty about his first NCAA tournament experience.

OK, maybe the game —- a 68-50 loss to Notre Dame in the 2008 first round —- wasn’t the best of memories.


But what about the throng of fans? Or playing in an NBA arena? Or the media horde (all right, that part might not be as much fun for some folks)?

And then there was perhaps the most unforgettable part of all: The police escort from the team hotel to the arena.

“It was a great thing,” said Long, now a senior for the Patriots. “It felt so good because you felt like you were an important person or an important team. Also, just getting out to Denver, we flew in a big [charter] plane. It wasn’t even a small one. We had so much space in the world and we got to enjoy the whole time.”

Now, he gets to again as his college career comes to a close.

Long and the eighth-seeded Patriots (26-6) will meet ninth-seeded Villanova on Friday in Cleveland. They’ll wear their home jerseys for the first time in six NCAA tournament appearances. They’ll face a Big East power who they fell to on a last-minute shot a season ago.

But most significantly, they’ll try to live up to perhaps the biggest standard of all at Mason: Striving to be the team that has the most fun in the NCAA tournament.

Coach Jim Larranaga is counting on Long and Isaiah Tate —- the two players left over from the ‘08 team —- to make sure the Patriots live up to their postseason legacy.

“I think this is very, very important,” Larranaga said. “I think they know it. I’m not 100 percent sure they know this. The greatest thing Isaiah and Cam can do is smile and be happy. And they’ve done a lot of that this week. They’re excited. They’re enjoying it. And they’re playing and practicing great. It sends a message to their teammates: ‘You need to enjoy this, too. I’m having fun with this.’”

It’s hard not to when the end of a four-year journey includes a place in the NCAA tournament. As Mason was winning 16 in a row in the second half of the season, the prospect of reaching the tournament —- and the joy it would produce —- remained on Tate’s mind.

“Even earlier in the season, it was motivation,” Tate said. “We would tell them ‘Hey, we’ve been to the tournament and we want to get there. We have to put in this work to do it.’ We told them about our experiences there and how much fun it is.”

Both Tate and Long have on-court experiences from 2008 as well. Long played 18 minutes and scored four points on 1-for-6 shooting against Notre Dame, while Tate logged 16 minutes and had two points on 1-for-3 shooting for the Patriots.

Like Long, it was the details of the trip rather than simply the game that remain vivid.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Tate said. “We went out to Denver. We had the police escorts and all that. We had that one day of practice at the Pepsi Center, with media all over the place. It was a great experience.”

Both seniors were crucial elements in Mason’s backcourt this season. Tate averaged career-highs in points (6.2) and minutes (20.1) as the Patriots’ sixth man, while Long was a first-team all-CAA pick. He averaged 15.3 points and 4.6 rebounds.

The end is in sight, though Mason —- with its 2006 Final Four run still in mind —- plans to stick around a while longer than a typical No. 8 seed might. Still, Long plans to heed his coach’s advice while making sure his teammates who haven’t enjoyed the limelight of an NCAA tournament do the same.

“I definitely have been enjoying myself, big-time,” Long said. “I’m loving it. But the main thing I’ve been telling the other guys is the same thing Coach L has been trying to tell me to do: Be happy. Enjoy the moment. Don’t feel any pressure about anything, because we’re still an underdog team coming in here.”

Any other sage advice?

“Everything’s going to change after we get to this point, so we have to take advantage of it and have a good time,” Long said.

As always, it’s precisely what the Patriots plan to do.

—- Patrick Stevens