- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio — George Mason’s Jim Larranaga is hoping his Patriots capitalize on a formula of familiarity.

The Patriots’ last trip to the NCAA tournament (2001) resulted in one of the greatest games between Beltway teams in the event’s history as 14th-seeded George Mason came within a Tremaine Price 3-pointer at the buzzer from stopping Maryland’s run to the Final Four in the opening round in Boise, Idaho.

“One of the key elements to our great 2001 first-round game against an excellent Maryland team was there was no fear factor, because our guys had played against their guys in summer leagues,” Larranaga said yesterday of that 83-80 gut-twister. “Familiarity is always important because it gives you a comfort level.”

While Larranaga and Co. can’t call on Kenner League competition for comfort against today’s first-round opponent, they will face a relatively familiar foe in sixth-seeded Michigan State (22-11), a team the Patriots battled for 40 minutes in last season’s BB&T; Classic before falling 66-60.

“Whenever you face a team the year before the tournament, you learn a lot about them. They have most of the same players back, and so do we,” said George Mason senior guard Lamar Butler (11.4 points). “We feel very • confident going into this game.”

Undoubtedly, the memories of his game-high 19-point performance against the Spartans has something to do with Butler’s sunny outlook. But the 6-foot-2 senior offered another nugget about that game that somewhat dispels the conventional wisdom that the Patriots (23-7) are in serious trouble without point guard Tony Skinn, their second leading scorer (12.8 points) and an All-Colonial Athletic Association performer, who is serving a one-game suspension for punching Hofstra’s Loren Stokes in the semifinals of the CAA tournament two weeks ago.

“Last year when we played Michigan State, Tony was just coming off a broken wrist, so he didn’t play that much,” said Butler. “And that was a close game, a game that could have gone either way. I don’t think not having Tony will affect this team.”

While that observation might be a bit too optimistic, Mason’s primary concern against the Spartans is likely to be inside, where Michigan State crushed the Patriots on the boards 39-22 last season in a game that was a statistical draw otherwise.

Not only do the Spartans feature one of the nation’s most polished post players in 6-11 senior center Paul Davis (17.8 points, 9.3 rebounds) and two of the Big Ten’s most physical guards in 6-4 Shannon Brown (17.6 points, 4.5 rebounds) and 6-5 Maurice Ager (19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds) , but 6-7, 227-pound bruiser Matt Trannon (4.2 rebounds) returns to coach Tom Izzo’s rotation after missing most of the last two weeks of the regular season with a broken jaw.

Few teams in the nation can match Michigan State’s inside-outside combination of size and ability. It probably will take more than familiarity and heart for George Mason to counteract such athletic brawn.

“We certainly know the caliber of the basketball team and program we’re going to face, because everybody knows how good Michigan State is,” Larranaga said. “They went to the Final Four last year, and four of these guys were in the starting lineup last year. It’s a great challenge, but I think one that we’re looking forward to.”

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