- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Larranaga had to cut yesterday’s shootaround short because his players were so excited. The George Mason coach felt his team was in an excellent frame of mind heading into its Final Four matchup.

Larranaga felt that way through the pregame warm-up and as the game began. After that, it was anything but.

The Patriots made three of their first 13 shots and did not make a 3-pointer until some 34 minutes into the game. Tony Skinn clanked his first 3. Routine layups were botched as Mason was out of sync.

Did the Final Four atmosphere catch up to Mason or was it the law of averages after shooting well throughout its four tournament wins? Or something else?

“Some of the credit has to go to Florida and how they were able to defend our post men individually, not needing much help,” Larranaga said. “The other thing is the dome is a factor for a team that has never played in it. Lamar Butler was quoted as saying yesterday that he had never been in a dome.”

Conversely, Florida advanced to the Final Four by winning the regional in Minneapolis’ Metrodome last week.

“There had to be some lack of familiarity with how you get in a good rhythm in a building like this, this size, with the problem of developing the proper depth perception,” Larranaga said. “Florida’s team played in that kind of arena last week. I think if we had that experience, maybe that would have eased the burden.”

GMU success helps CAA

The Colonial Athletic Association appeared destined for extinction just five years ago. The defection of three members left George Mason as one of only six schools — the minimum number required to have an automatic NCAA tournament bid.

East Carolina left for Conference USA, American bolted for the Patriot League and the league was is deep jeopardy when Richmond, the centerpiece of a league whose office is in its city, announced it was moving the Atlantic 10.

The league discussed merging with America East, but the conference’s schools voted it down. The CAA ensured its survival when Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra and Towson left America East for the CAA, and the revamped conference began play in 2001-02.

The league not only grew, but has gone from life-support to sending a representative to the Final Four for the first time in its 21-season history.

“This has redefined our league,” said Tom Yeager, who has been the CAA commissioner since the league was founded. “It will resonate for a long time I think. The neatest thing I think it will do is [what it will give] the thousands of fans who support CAA basketball that now see these guys and other teams as being among the nation’s elite.”

The league expanded to 12 schools last summer with the addition of Northeastern and Georgia State.

George Mason getting into the tournament at all was a major coup even before it became the first conference team to reach the Sweet 16 since Richmond in 1988. The CAA had not had a team get an NCAA at-large bid in 20 seasons, when Richmond received one to join David Robinson and tournament champion Navy.

The Patriots ended that drought on Selection Sunday when they were selected as the 11th seed in the Washington, D.C., Region, joining CAA tournament champion UNC Wilmington.

“The perception of your place in college basketball is determined by one, how many teams you get in the tournament, then to a certain degree, the quality of teams by advancing,” Yeager said. “The CAA has always been considered a nice league with nice players. Some might call this a fluke, but you don’t string four flukes together.”

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