- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — It usually takes more than talent to win in college basketball. And sometimes it takes less.

When George Mason basketball coach Jim Larranaga was an assistant at Virginia in the early 1980s, the team had an All-American center, Ralph Sampson, who was supposed to lead the Cavaliers to glory.

“Everybody expected us to win the national championship,” Larranaga recalled. “I could observe the amount of pressure that we all felt trying to get to the Final Four.”

They got there in 1981 but not the next two seasons despite being a No. 1 seed. In 1984, with Sampson in the NBA, a less-talented Virginia team was considered a long shot by some even to make the NCAA tournament. The relaxed, stress-free, seventh-seeded Cavaliers ended up playing in the Final Four, losing to Houston in overtime in the national semifinals.

There was widespread speculation only a few weeks ago that Larranaga’s Patriots would not get into the NCAA tournament. Once they did, they were even more of a stretch than the 1984 Cavaliers to reach the Final Four.

Yet, now they will play Florida tonight in the national semifinals at the RCA Dome, demonstrating yet again that talent is just one piece of the puzzle and often not the biggest.

“You’ve got to have toughness, which they have. You’ve got to have athletic ability, and you’ve got to have experience,” former Arizona State and Mississippi coach Rob Evans said.

The upside of having less talent is that players rarely leave early for the NBA. The Patriots, who start three seniors, beat talented but young North Carolina in the second round of the tournament. Last year, with four players who would be drafted, a talented and experienced UNC team won the national championship.

If those Tar Heels played George Mason today, the result almost surely would be different.

“But when they’re freshman and sophomores, George Mason can beat that team,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.

Said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who had three McDonald’s All-Americans yet suffered through his worst season: “Talent alone doesn’t get you there. It’s talent plus work ethic. Talent plus teamwork. Talent plus leadership. Talent plus sacrifice. Talent plus effort. All that. That’s what makes you a team.”

George Mason has elevated these attributes the last three weeks with obvious results. Larranaga says he has “a very good group of smart players,” especially forwards Jai Lewis and Will Thomas. The squad also bought into the theory that they could win every game, regardless of the opponent.

Yet, these Patriots can play a little, too. Talent alone might not get you there, but no talent gets you nowhere. George Mason’s players have a variety of skills — guards who can shoot, inside players who can score and rebound.

“I guess the other teams are falling asleep on our abilities a little bit,” senior guard Tony Skinn said.

Still, all five starters are from Maryland and all almost were universally overlooked by the presumed big local basketball schools — Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington.

Asked last week about his top three choices as a prep recruit, Skinn replied, “George Mason, George Mason, George Mason.”

There always was another player a coach liked better.

So how could so many coaches and their staffs, purportedly keen judges of talent, have missed? How could Maryland’s Gary Williams, for example, bypass all of the George Mason starters in his own state in favor of other recruits who have not blossomed as expected? The Terps have failed to make the NCAA tournament the last two years.

On the other hand, that’s the same Gary Williams who led Maryland to a national championship in 2002 with several players who were not heavily recruited.

“It’s not just Maryland,” Boeheim said. “What about us? What about Villanova? What about Georgetown? What about the ACC schools? None of them recruited them.”

And why was that?

“Because they really weren’t quite there at the time,” Boeheim said.

Such are the kind of players who would sit on the end of a bench at a bigger school and fail to improve, Boeheim said. At the smaller programs, for whom George Mason carries the flag into uncharted territory, such a player immediately can see a lot of action and ultimately improve much faster.

That, combined with the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships a program, has caused what Boeheim and other coaches and administrators see as a narrowing of the talent gap.

“I’m not sure George Mason and the so-called mid-majors are better than they used to be,” Boeheim said. “But the top schools are definitely not.”

Yet with more information available but fewer opportunities to see players (another NCAA rule), recruiting remains an inexact science. Talent often is misjudged. At 6-foot-7, Lewis and Thomas generally were considered too short to play the post. Every coach guessed wrong.

Bringing the best out in a player is a hallmark of good coaches, but luck also plays a role. One of Boeheim’s former players, Hakim Warrick, was ignored by just about everyone except Syracuse and ended up Big East player of the year. Boeheim’s biggest star of recent vintage, Carmelo Anthony, was about 6-7, 190 pounds when he was recruited out of high school. After a year of prep school, Anthony arrived on the Syracuse campus at 6-8, 230 pounds.

“You don’t always know when you look at a kid in high school how good he’s gonna be,” Boeheim said. “You don’t really know. These are 17-year-old kids.”

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