- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

George Mason may not have the same fan support or media exposure as other area college basketball teams, but the Patriots do what matters most: They win consistently.

While Maryland has made 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances, Mason is on a successful run of its own. The Patriots have clinched a seventh straight winning season as they eye their fifth postseason appearance in that stretch. Mason has won nine of its past 12, including a home victory over conference leader Old Dominion, as it makes its annual late-season rally.

“We want to let people know we are here, too,” junior center Jai Lewis said. “We want to be the Maryland of Northern Virginia.”

Before coach Jim Larranaga’s arrival in 1997, the Patriots had eight consecutive losing seasons. Former Denver Nuggets and Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead took his breakneck style to Fairfax, but that style of play didn’t bring a winner. By the time Larranaga arrived from Bowling Green, the program had been gutted.

Larranaga has turned Mason into a model of success. After going 9-18 his first season, the Patriots made the NCAA tournament the next year. In the past six seasons, Mason has averaged 19 wins and reached two NCAA tournaments and a pair of NITs.

“We want to be the Gonzaga of the East,” sharpshooting guard Lamar Butler said. “Everybody knows who Gonzaga is, but they are a mid-major team. We definitely want to be on that level. The talent and will to win is here.”

In the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association, postseason bids don’t come easily. Last year, the Patriots lost the conference tournament final by one point to Virginia Commonwealth. VCU went to the NCAA tournament, while Drexel and Mason settled for the NIT. Mason won two NIT games at Patriot Center, knocking off Tennessee in the opening round and Austin Peay in the first round before falling at Oregon in the second round.

After last season’s team won a school-record 23 games, four seniors and three non-seniors departed. Lewis became the only returning starter when guard Terry Reynolds left for personal reasons. Part-time starting post player Kevin Mickens bolted early to play professionally in Europe.

Mason had a losing record after falling at home to Drexel on Jan.19 for a third straight defeat, and its string of winning seasons was in jeopardy.

“A month ago, I was worried about that,” the 55-year old Larranaga said. “We were 7-8 [2-4 in the CAA] at the time and weren’t playing good defense.”

The Patriots are now 16-11 overall, 10-7 in the CAA. The season turned around three days after losing to Drexel with a 19-point blowout at rival James Madison, which was held to 37 percent shooting. Mason showed postseason potential last week with a 74-58 pasting of Old Dominion, which came in with a 23-3 record.

The rebound coincided with the development of three freshmen, each of whom has played a larger role than expected before the early departures. Starting guard John Vaughan, starting power forward Will Thomas and sixth-man swingman Folarin Campbell have helped keep the Mason tradition going.

The three-guard starting lineup features Tony Skinn and Butler, two juniors who evolved from role players last season to leaders who can carry the team offensively. Butler averages a team-high 16.0 points, while Skinn averages 15.2. However, Mason’s real anchor is the 6-foot-7, 275-pound Lewis. The punishing post man uses his wide body and athleticism to counter his lack of height and is third in the league with 7.8 rebounds a game. He averages 13.5 points and shoots 51.7 percent from the field.

Larranaga credits the cohesiveness of his staff — top assistant Bill Courtney is also in his eighth season — and the presence of prominent big men as the top reasons for the Patriots’ long-running success.

Lewis is the latest impact inside player in the line of George Evans, a three-time CAA Player of the Year and a Gulf War veteran who led the Patriots to two NCAA tournaments. In his final college game in 2001, Evans scored 27 points in an 83-80 NCAA tournament loss to Maryland, which went to the Final Four.

“You have to start with that one guy inside,” said Larranaga, the winningest coach in Mason history with a 139-95 mark. “If you don’t have him, you better have a ton of weapons on the perimeter because most games are won in the paint. You have to win the battle of the boards and get the ball in the paint to score.”

The Patriots also have won several recruiting battles for Beltway talent. Campbell, from Springbrook High in Silver Spring, passed on a scholarship to play at Providence. Butler, from Oxon Hill High, had offers from bigger programs, and was even on Maryland’s radar if targeted prospects had gone elsewhere.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys where they say, ‘We’ll take you because this person fell through,’” said Butler, who is making 43.9 percent of his 3-pointers and leads the CAA in 3-pointers made at 3.19 a game. “It was between GW, George Mason and Xavier in Ohio. At that time, GW had signed [point guard] T.J. [Thompson] and the coaching staff wasn’t really there. [Tom] Penders had been fired, and Xavier was kind of far.”

Butler was regularly attending Mason games, where he watched former Oxon Hill star Terrance Nixon play, and was impressed with the Patriots’ defense-first style, which triggers an up-tempo offense.

“Before where there was no interest, there is some,” said Larranaga, who has seven players from Maryland, including Vaughan (Laurel High) and Baltimore’s Thomas. “Now local kids growing up in the area who never heard of George Mason are now seeing us on TV or hearing about our success on the court or seeing us in postseason play are coming over here to see the campus.”

Larranaga feels the program’s recently built tradition gives him a greater chance of winning recruits from major conference programs. Mason regularly goes up against the Atlantic 10, Big East, ACC and Conference USA for players.

“We have been able to find guys like [former center] Jesse Young and Lamar Butler,” the coach said. “Last year, Folarin Campbell, John Vaughan and Will Thomas had A-10 offers, but passed them up to come to George Mason.”

While the Patriots thrive on the court, they have struggled at the box office. They averaged just below 4,000 a game this season, up a little more than 1,000 from five seasons ago. Mason had a sellout crowd of 9,610 against James Madison and drew 7,033 for last Saturday’s win over Manhattan.

However, five of its 12 home games drew fewer than 3,000 fans. The Patriots particularly struggle to sell tickets for weekday games and when students are on break.

“We have got to get rid of that [commuter school] stigma,” said athletic director Tom O’Connor, who hired Larranaga. “I think we are accepted in the community because we are a good, solid program. If we had problems, people would be wondering about us. I just think people in this area’s time and traffic lends itself not to be able to get here during the week. But on weekends, it all falls in place.”

And more people will follow Mason if it continues winning. There already is speculation Larranaga could be a candidate at Virginia if Pete Gillen is fired, as expected. The Mason coach spent two seasons with Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage when they were Cavaliers assistants in the early 1980s under head coach Terry Holland.

Larranaga said he would look at the possibility if it comes up, but added, “I would be very happy if I finish my career at George Mason.”

The Patriots are happy to have him however long he stays. He quickly laid down the law once he arrived at Mason, banning facial hair and doing nightly bed checks.

It took him only two seasons to lead the Patriots into the NCAA tournament. And the wins have kept on coming. It should be no surprise that Mason is peaking just in time for the conference tournament, which will be held March4-7 at Richmond Coliseum. The Patriots’ only remaining regular-season game is at Hofstra today.

“I needed to instill certain disciplines and certain expectations when I first got here,” said Larranaga, who no longer does bed checks and only requires players to look clean-cut. “It has changed quite a bit since then.”

Has it ever.

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