- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio — The Patriots are 40 minutes and an encore of Friday’s first-round opus from an NCAA tournament home game.

By thrashing sixth-seeded Michigan State for its first NCAA tournament victory in school history, George Mason (24-7) already has accomplished more in Dayton than anyone outside its own locker room thought possible. But if they can somehow manage a second-round victory today against defending national champion North Carolina (23-7), the Patriots would position themselves to become a permanent part of NCAA tournament lore.

Fact is, a victory over the Tar Heels today would send George Mason into the Sweet 16 for a hometown stand at Verizon Center against Wichita State, which the Patriots already bested in Kansas earlier this season 70-67.

“We’re real pumped up after beating Michigan State,” said sophomore swingman Folarin Campbell, who dropped a perfect 8-for-8 night on the Spartans en route to a team-high 21 points in Friday night’s magical upset. “If we could win this game and go home and play in front of all our fans, that would be just unbelievable. I don’t even want to think about it, but I bet the whole student body would pack into [Verizon Center]. That would be a dream.”

Of course, the reality is that there’s a big blue powerhouse boasting 1,883 victories’ worth of tradition (second only to Kentucky) standing between George Mason and that dream.

“Man, it’s Carolina,” Campbell said. “Just playing against North Carolina is special. When I was young, I wanted to either play for or against a big school like that. And we get our opportunity [today]. This is our chance to show the nation how good of a conference and team we are. For us to beat the defending national champs would be good.”

That might be the understatement of the season.

On the positive side, George Mason welcomes back All-CAA senior guard Tony Skinn, who was suspended for the Michigan State game by George Mason coach Jim Larranaga for punching Hofstra’s Loren Stokes in the groin in the semifinals of the CAA tournament.

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots playing any better than they did Friday night against Michigan State, when they shot nearly 60 percent from the field and crushed the Spartans on the boards (40-24). But Skinn did lead the team in steals (50) this season, as well as finishing second on the squad in scoring (12.8 points), assists (2.8) and 3-pointers (50).

“When the team returned to the locker room after [Friday night’s] game, I don’t know who, but one of them put a message on the chalk board,” Larranaga said. “Someone had written, ‘Tony is back.’ I think it meant an awful lot, not only to Tony but to his teammates, to give him a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.”

Skinn spent the days leading up to the NCAA tournament selection show fearing that his actions would cost his teammates a bid. And his suffering wasn’t over once the Patriots were awarded the first at-large bid from the CAA since David Robinson graced the league (1986).

In Dayton, Skinn’s guilt trip required him to sit helplessly in a suit on the bench while his teammates faced the Big Ten behemoth.

“It was hard,” Skinn said of Friday night’s experience. “I think being on the court is a whole lot easier than the bench, because it’s like a roller coaster ride on that bench … I’m very sorry about what I did. If I could take back anything in my life, it would be that. I’ve hardly slept for awhile, but I didn’t sleep much [Friday] night for a different reason. It was excitement and happiness. I can’t wait to get back on the court.”

Skinn’s return will be key against a North Carolina bunch which is far deeper than the Michigan State squad. Nine different Tar Heels players average double digits in minutes. But nobody is of greater import to UNC’s gameplan than freshman center Tyler Hansbrough, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound force who plays the game as though he’s spent a dozen seasons in Chapel Hill.

“He is a monster on the blocks,” George Mason senior guard Lamar Butler said of Hansbrough (19.1 points, 7.8 rebounds), the runaway favorite for national freshman of the year. “We just have to take him out of his rhythm, get him uncomfortable in the paint and move him out a little bit. That’s one thing we noticed about [Michigan State center] Paul Davis. He’s the same way, so we have to get the ball out of his hands.”

Sophomore forward Will Thomas did an excellent job defending Davis on Friday, holding the senior center to just two points in the second half. The Patriots will need another monumental performance from Thomas on Hansbrough today to have a chance to top the Tar Heels.

“It’s always a boost playing against a big-time player,” Thomas said. “And it doesn’t get much bigger than Hansbrough or North Carolina.”

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