- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Jim Larranaga is clutching this moment with all his heart.

He has a zillion quips, a ready smile and a plethora of statistics and anecdotes that reflect well on George Mason University and his basketball team.

“What distractions?” he said on Fun Street yesterday. “You live for this. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Larranaga and the Patriots have shed their cloak of anonymity, if not their inferiority complex, in advancing to the Sweet 16 and mocking the observations of CBS talkmeisters Jim Nance and Billy Packer on Selection Sunday.

The latter sniffed in the direction of an at-large bid going to a tradition-less basketball program from the Colonial Athletic Association.

Their instant analysis was exposed as faulty after the Patriots defeated Michigan State and North Carolina, two elite members of the college basketball fraternity.

So now Larranaga is peddling the tale of the nondescript team from outside the Beltway that believed in the power of its dream during the get-acquainted session in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood. It is an oft-told tale of March, of a mid-major team transcending its humble origins and knocking down the forces of conventional wisdom.

Perhaps this time means more to those associated with George Mason than other institutions, because the Fairfax school is often required to summon the explanation that it is not Georgetown, much less George Washington and James Madison.

The confusion of so many Georges mixed with a James is understandable from afar, no different from the confusion affixed to so many North Carolinas other than the one dressed in blue.

The confusion gnaws on many of the 29,000 students, no matter theirs is the largest university in the state, has two Nobel Prize winners in its economics department and touts a well-respected law school.

The hyperbolic sub-culture of college basketball confirms respect, as a light-headed student suggested George Mason became a real school the instant the business in Dayton, Ohio, was completed last Sunday.

That thinking is comically obtuse, for there are all manner of quality schools that do not go to the expense to field Division I athletic programs.

Yet George Mason remains ever sensitive to the charge that it lacks an identity.

Larranaga put the following question to a group of reporters in Dayton: Is George Mason a small, private school or a large state university? Larranaga compared the silence to students stumped by a question in a classroom.

Larranaga is certainly up to the challenge of getting the word out on the school that started as a branch of the University of Virginia in 1957. His mug has been ubiquitous this week.

He is an able gabber who has waited too long to have a defining season. So he has seized the occasion to sell the merits of the school like never before.

You cannot buy the advertising blitz that comes with a run in the NCAA tournament, as admissions directors across the country know only too well.

“This week, the hoopla, the amount of exposure, I don’t know how to describe it,” Larranaga said. “It’s been overwhelming.”

His 15 minutes are not necessarily up, considering the next opponent, Wichita State, another mid-major program that has defied the skeptics.

The Patriots cannot rally behind the loveable underdog moniker tonight after defeating Wichita State 70-67 in Wichita, Kan., last month.

The prospect of those two meeting in the Washington, D.C., Region semifinals would have been laughable then.

As senior guard Lamar Butler said, “I never imagined we would see them again.”

Yet here they are, the least renowned of the Georges vs. a Missouri Valley Conference entry, one destined to make the region final.

“We’re definitely not finished,” Butler said.

Tough words.

But who is inclined to argue with the Patriots at this point?

They were a bubble team 12 days ago.

Now they are flirting with the absurd.

They are George Mason.

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