- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS.

Jim Larranaga re-introduced a sense of perspective to the NCAA tournament, which increased the likeability quotient of the George Mason University basketball team.

Larranaga refused to be a puddle of sweat on the sidelines or a fountain of curtness before the national press. He refused to succumb to the tension of the national spotlight.

He dreamed of being a head coach in the Final Four, and so, once it came to be, once the implausibility of it all became a national topic, he wrested every bit of enjoyment out of it that he could, even amid the hurt of defeat.

Larranaga, of course, could respond in this manner because of the low expectations affixed to a mid-major program.

His season was judged a success after the Patriots cracked the Top 25 for the first time in the school’s history in late February.

Even if the Patriots had not received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Larranaga would not have been subjected to the objections of disgruntled alumni or been required to explain what went wrong to his higher-ups.

That is not how it works in the mid-major environment. School presidents are normally satisfied if a mid-major coach wins more games than he loses and occasionally leads his team into a postseason tournament, the NIT included.

Larranaga could not help but wonder whether one of the legacies of his team will be mid-major programs shifting, if only subtly, to the win-or-else mind-set of the major conferences.

“Rather than this be something that everyone can look at and enjoy and get excited about, I am still concerned that other programs not create this expectation now that George Mason has done it,” he said. “That definitely would be the wrong message.”

Few coaches are able to enjoy their moment in the Final Four as much as Larranaga. That is the counterproductive condition of being a coach of a power conference program. And Larranaga, rightly, does not want to see that element trickle down to the mid-major ranks because of George Mason.

“I would just hope that our guys in future years would be able look back and say they did something great rather than something happened where the expectation for guys just like themselves grows so much that nobody can enjoy the ride like we did,” he said. “One of the greatest parts about this trip was we didn’t put any pressure on ourselves. No one created the expectation, except us. We wanted to continue to play the best basketball we could, no matter who we played.”

Larranaga’s even-temperedness certainly benefited the Patriots.

His players were able to compete without the fear of a mistake resulting in a sideline rant.

That is just not his style. And besides, it does not take a graduate degree in psychology to know that athletes are liable to perform at a higher level if they don’t have a coach who froths at the mouth after every turnover and ill-advised shot.

As much as Larranaga talked of a balanced equilibrium contributing to the ascendancy of the Patriots, he could not escape the question of a repeat performance next spring.

Those outside expectations, like it or not, have been raised on the Patriots, as was the case with Gonzaga after it advanced to the Elite Eight in 1999.

“I’m sure everyone in that locker room who is returning wants to be back here,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell them, ‘No, it’s not possible because Tony [Skinn], Lamar [Butler] and Jai [Lewis] are graduating.’ As I said earlier, the greater the expectation, the greater the pressure and the more likely you fall short. We’ll just continue to be who we are and believe in the things we do.”

Larranaga will try his best to preserve a belief system that guided this previously unknown basketball program to the Final Four.


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