- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

The George Mason basketball team gathered in a circle at midcourt at Patriot Center yesterday just as it does before every practice. As usual, coach Jim Larranaga delivered the thought of the day. In his message to the Patriots, he talked about moving forward as the team begins Colonial Athletic Association play tonight at Drexel.

“The past is history,” Larranaga said with the wide smile that has been missing much of this season. “The future is a mystery.”

The pre-conference schedule has been one of unfulfilled expectations for George Mason, which has just two starters back from a team that last season made an improbable run to the Final Four. Players have struggled in new roles with Larranaga changing the starting lineup six times already. The Patriots are 5-4, with no wins that are likely to help them earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in March. They hardly look like the team picked to finish second (behind Hofstra) in the CAA.

But Larranaga sees hope on the horizon. His latest starting lineup, which produced a 58-46 win at Holy Cross last week, includes senior Gabe Norwood at point guard and freshman Louis Birdsong as a starting forward next to junior Will Thomas. Junior Folarin Campbell and redshirt sophomore John Vaughan are on the wings.

“You end up with certain expectations,” Larranaga said. “And when those expectations are not met, you have to reevaluate and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do to get to as good as I thought we might be at this point?’ We have done that and those guys have paid close attention, so we are getting better.”

The Patriots hope to see more results tonight playing at surprisingly strong Drexel (8-2). Coach Bruiser Flint’s Dragons were picked to finish third in the league but enter the game with the No. 7 RPI in the nation after road upsets against Villanova and Syracuse.

The key for George Mason could be the development of the 6-foot-6 Birdsong, who has the potential to take attention away from Thomas, who has been consistently double-teamed all season. Birdsong, a Baltimore product, was named CAA Rookie of the Week after totaling eight points, 11 rebounds and two blocks against Holy Cross.

“We have to establish a secondary guy inside who can get us eight or 10 points,” said Larranaga, who previously has started juniors Darryl Monroe and Jesus Urbina in what, for now, is Birdsong’s spot. “Louis Birdsong has done that for us the last two games. If he can do that consistently, suddenly we become a much better offensive team.”

Defensively, George Mason yields a league-low 58.2 points a game but has been hurt by 3-point shooting. Opponents are shooting 38.1 percent from beyond the arc against the Patriots this season.

“We are not helping each other as much as we should be,” said Campbell, who averages a team-high 16.1 points. “We are not containing the dribbler — just little things. We will play good defense for 30 seconds and then have a mental breakdown and give them a good shot. We just have to focus for 35 seconds. We get caught sleeping and they will make a big shot.”

George Mason hopes its win at Holy Cross, in which it held the Crusaders to 30.4-percent shooting, marks the beginning of an overall turnaround. After tonight’s game in Philadelphia, the Patriots play at home against Mississippi State (9-2) on Saturday at noon. Then, Larranaga’s team begins 2007 with 15 consecutive CAA contests.

“We have positioned ourselves to have a great February,” Larranaga said. “January is going to be very, very tough because this team is still very inexperienced. I look at where we are today compared to where we were two weeks ago and I am very pleased.”



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