- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Jai Lewis was about 13, and he was playing pick-up basketball games against grown men on the Army base in Maryland at which his father was stationed.

Little did he know he was scrimmaging against the player he would one day follow at George Mason.

“I used to play against George Evans at the gym at Aberdeen Proving Ground,” Lewis said. “He was the same player then that he was when he came to college. He had the big eyes. I always played against the older guys.”

Evans was stationed at Aberdeen then but later attended Mason, where he was a three-time Colonial Athletic Association player of the year and led the Patriots to two NCAA tournament appearances.

Lewis is now the key cog — some would say clog — in the middle for the Patriots as they continue their unimaginable run in the Final Four.

The Patriots’ success starts with Lewis, a surprisingly nimble and extremely large man who can handle the ball, shoot 3-pointers and go by other big men with a devastating drop-step.

“He’s a freak of nature,” teammate Lamar Butler said. “I have never seen anybody that big and that mobile. His hands and feet are so quick for his size. … Jai is a finesse big man. He can bully at the same time, but he’s a finesse player.”

Lewis is 6-foot-7 and, at 280 pounds, the lightest he’s been since he arrived in Fairfax. He is the first option on offense, adept at using his footwork to attack the basket or in finding the open man if he is double-teamed.

The senior leads the Patriots in scoring (13.7 points a game) and shooting percentage (52.8). He also has made 16 of 45 (35.6 percent) of his 3-pointers, averages nearly two assists a game and leads the Patriots with 7.7 rebounds.

The athleticism is not surprising: Lewis played football, basketball and lacrosse at Aberdeen High School. He is tough to handle on the block because of his wide frame and a dangerous set-up man when the defense pays him too much attention.

“I am surprised when they don’t double me,” said Lewis, who learned his finesse skills while playing guard his first three high school seasons. “I just take what they give me.”

That was 20 points against the Connecticut man coverage that allowed him to post up weaker Huskies. Against Wichita State in the Sweet 16, he drew extra attention, setting up his teammates as the Shockers collapsed on him in the middle and allowed the Patriots’ perimeter players open shots.

Lewis almost didn’t attend Mason or play basketball at the college level. He was a star running back and tight end at Aberdeen and likely was headed to Virginia Tech or East Carolina to play football. However, his SAT scores proved too low.

On the advice of his AAU coach, Lewis went to Maine Central Academy. MCI is a basketball power but has no football program. The football recruiters disappeared, and Lewis wound up in Fairfax.

“I don’t know which sport I like better,” said Lewis, who has drawn interest from NFL scouts this season. “I just like to play.”

These days, that means taking his place as George Mason’s man in the middle as Evans did before him.

“Jai Lewis is much like George, but just in a different way,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “He’s much more of a quiet leader. He has a mind of his own, a personality of his own. He’s not one to just follow instructions. He always has a question, ‘Why? Why do we do it that way?’”

Lewis also has an excellent complement in the frontcourt in power forward Will Thomas, the 6-7 sophomore who will take over Lewis’ primary role next season. The duo of not-so-tall big men has catapulted George Mason to unbelievable heights.

“I thought we had enough talent in the backcourt that if we could get one more guy to go along with Jai while he was in a George Mason uniform, we would have a shot,” Larranaga said. “It wasn’t until we added Will Thomas to Jai Lewis did we have inside strength to compete with the top teams in the country.”

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