- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

The National Invitational Tournament is giving George Mason a second life.

After losing to Hofstra in the quarterfinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, the Patriots have an opportunity to prove they belong in March and perhaps show they were NCAA tournament caliber.

The Patriots (19-9) play host to St. Joseph's (18-11) tonight in the first round of the NIT at the Patriot Center. This is the first time George Mason has played host to an NIT game and just the second time the NIT has invited the Patriots the first was in 1986.

"[The NIT] has a lot of good things about it," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "We get a chance to kind of bounce back from a tough loss in conference tournament play and a second chance in a national tournament."

The NIT isn't the national tournament the Patriots wanted, but they'll take it. With three starters returning next season, George Mason can use the NIT as a springboard for a possible run at the NCAAs next season.

If the Patriots advance, they'll get the South Florida/Ball State winner at a date and site to be determined.

"I think this is a great opportunity for us, especially having the success that we've had the last two years," said center Jesse Young on George Mason's third postseason appearance in the last four years. "Hopefully, we can make a name for ourselves and a little bit of a run so people will know who we are for next year, too."

This year's expanded 40-team (up from 32) NIT field includes a lot of programs with tradition. Teams like St. Joseph's, Memphis, Richmond, St. Bonaventure, Dayton, Villanova, New Mexico, Temple and Butler are known almost exclusively for their basketball teams.

St. Joe's began the season ranked in the top 10 and then fell short of expectations. With four fifth-year seniors on the roster, the Hawks would like to go out in positive fashion. However, the Hawks might be somewhat disinterested after crashing out of the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals to Dayton. The Patriots are 11-2 at home this season.

The Hawks have one of the best guard tandems in the country with leading scorer Marvin O'Connor (18.0 points per game) and sophomore point guard Jameer Nelson (14.0 points, 6.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds).

To win this game, the Patriots will have to slow the 6-foot-4 O'Connor and shut down Nelson's dribble penetration. O'Connor is capable of ridiculous scoring outbursts, as he proved with 18 points in the last 57.5 seconds of a game against La Salle last season.

In last year's second-round loss to Stanford, O'Connor poured in 37 points and pushed the top-seeded Cardinal to the final minute. The flashy O'Connor received a standing ovation from fans for his performance after fouling out late in the game.

"Those guys are really good, I see them on TV all the time," said Patriots senior swingman Rob Anderson. "[OConnor is] an offensive threat. We're going to have to make him work on defense as well and try to tire him out."

Raoul Heinen, George Mason's point guard, is the team's appointed stopper, and his job will be to defend O'Connor. This game will be won in the backcourt. Na'im Crenshaw, the Hawks' other wing, averages 14.3 points.

The Hawks average 77 points per game. George Mason will have to play solid defense, unlike it did in allowing 82 points to Hofstra.

"If [defense] doesn't show up, it will be ugly," Young said. "I think everybody has sat down and realized that when we play some defense, we can be pretty good."

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