- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Lamar Butler, holding the infant son of assistant coach Scott Cherry, flashed his now-familiar smile. Coach Jim Larranaga accepted congratulations from Virginia Gov. Tim Kane. The Crowne Plaza Hotel lobby buzzed yesterday morning with players, their families and friends sharing hugs, tears and reminiscences.

The Patriots left Indianapolis a little upset after their loss to Florida in the Final Four on Saturday night. Still, they felt pretty good about themselves and their rise from obscurity to an appearance college basketball’s grandest stage.

“For an 11 seed to make it to the Final Four in 2006, that is unheard of,” said Butler, a guard whose Patriots became the first Colonial Athletic Association team to reach the Final Four. “We definitely changed the face of college basketball. Whenever you talk about the tournament, you are going to have to mention our run to the Final Four.

“My kids’ kids can watch this. Even when I’m dead and gone, they can see the clips of me playing in the Final Four.”

George Mason entered the tournament with a controversial at-large bid, the first for a CAA team since 1986. The little-known team beat sixth-seeded Michigan State, defending national champion and No.3 seed North Carolina and seventh-seeded Wichita State, then knocked out the top-seeded title favorite, Connecticut, to capture the Washington, D.C., Region.

The Patriots are widely regarded as the most unlikely team ever to reach the Final Four, considering their program stature and limited basketball history. George Mason became only the second No.11 seed to go so far — LSU also did it in 1986 — and first so-called mid-major since Indiana State, with superstar Larry Bird, and Penn did it in 1979.

“The entire nation embraced this team,” Larranaga said. “It became so much fun to win a game and have everybody feel great — not just us — but everybody around us. That enthusiasm, it defies words. You can’t really describe how much fun we are having and how good we feel about ourselves. … “It was a magic carpet ride.”

Larranaga will begin recruiting and preparing for next season without senior stars Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn. The trio will play this week in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational for NBA hopefuls. The Patriots have a solid core returning in Will Thomas, Folarin Campbell and top reserve Gabe Norwood.

No matter what happens in the future, this team’s legacy will remain. Schools that don’t belong to a major conference now have reason to believe they can reach the Final Four. The basketball team’s success also will have ramifications for George Mason as a whole.

“We have to reassess such things, interestingly enough, as how large we want the university,” George Mason president Dr. Alan Merten said. “We had been talking about by 2010, 31,000, 32,000 [students]. If our applicant pools go up as it has been and add this, maybe we should be talking about 34,000. It just may be the time to do that. It’s overwhelming. I smile a lot. Every once in a while, I start to cry.”

Merten said the university, which has students from more than 100 countries, is united as never before because of this team. He said three monumental things have happened to the school: Jim Buchanan won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1986, and Vernon Smith did the same in 2002.

“This is the third,” Merten said.

Merten and Mason administrators have begun talks about a contract extension for Larranaga that no doubt will include a significant pay increase. Larranaga is sure to be a hot commodity for jobs at bigger programs like N.C. State. Athletic director Tom O’Connor said last week George Mason can match offers “within reason.”

“[Larranaga] said he wants to retire at George Mason University,” Merten said. “The university has spent time over the last two weeks dealing with the future of the basketball program.”

The 56-year-old coach, who just completed his ninth season at Fairfax, sounds like he might be content to pass on the chance for more money and fame at a big-time program.

“Right now, I am as happy as I can possibly be,” Larranaga said. “I know I am going to be sitting down with the administration and talking to them about my future at George Mason. There are just so many great things about the school and people I work with. I haven’t even considered anything else.”

Larranaga said his only sadness is not that the Patriots lost to Florida but how they lost.

“My memory of this game will be, ‘Goodness, we missed a golden opportunity,’” he said. “We made some mistakes, missed some easy shots and didn’t get some rebounds we should have had. I would have liked to have played a much better second half. … I am going to try to remember the four games leading up to this. Because those four games we played great.”

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