- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

The game will not be televised. The arena is expected to be half-empty. The opponent is picked to finish last in the Horizon League.

George Mason will play its first game since last season’s Final Four appearance at a packed RCA Dome this afternoon at Cleveland State. The Patriots would have preferred to open at home, but Coach Jim Larranaga couldn’t find any takers. Instead, Mason will play the downtown Cleveland’s Goodman Center, which is expected to fill only a portion of its 8,500 seats.

There is even a two-for-one ticket promotion for those who pick up a coupon at a local drug store.

Cleveland State will likely be an exception as curious fans are expected to fill arenas to see the program that defied the odds to make one of the most unlikely runs to the Final Four. The Patriots, who had never won an NCAA tournament game, earned a controversial at-large bid and No. 11 seed, before stunning storied programs Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut en route to become the first Colonial Athletic Association team ever to reach the Final Four.

The Patriots sneaked up on college basketball last season. This time, they are the team circled on the schedules of opponent’s like Cleveland State, which is in its first season with former Rutgers coach Gary Waters.

“Everybody is coming for us,” point guard Folarin Campbell said. “We just have to bring it every game.”

And the Patriots have nothing to downplay their new status. Sure, they lost three starters in Lamar Butler, Tony Skinn and Jai Lewis and return only Campbell and power forward Will Thomas. Not only have they not shied away from expectations and their new role as the hunted, but they welcome the challenge of other’s taking their best shots in hostile settings.

“It should be exciting,” senior shooting guard Gabe Norwood said. “We are looking forward to it. Basketball is fun. We are really living the life right now. Anybody would love to be in our position, coming off a Final Four at a place like this. It is just an exciting time for us.”

George Mason also relishes the situation it finds itself in this season because it expects to have another successful season. Norwood, the sixth man last season, will join the starting lineup along with swingman John Vaughan and forward Darryl Monroe. Vaughan started as a freshman before missing last season with a knee injury. Monroe is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior college transfer who is forecast to rebound and provide a physical defensive presence in the post.

“They have the potential to be as good as last year,” Waters said. “I am not saying they are going to go as far as last year, but the talent, the athleticism and the depth are all there.”

The Patriots have plenty of options coming off the bench. Guard Dre Smith, a first-team junior college All-American last season, could wind up being the leading scorer.

“Andre is the energizer bunny,” said Larranaga, who starts his 10th season in Fairfax. “He has lots of energy. He can defend on the ball. He can run the floor very well. He shoots the 3 very well. But he is more of a guy who plays off the ball than on the ball. He is more of a high-octane shooter, but very much like Tony Skinn his sophomore.”

In other words, Larranaga cautions that it will take some times for players to adjust to the system and this group to jell and develop an identity.

The Patriots will take the first step in that post-Final Four journey against a rebuilding Vikings’ program, whose first goal is to not finish last in its league. Waters likes the idea of playing such a high-caliber opponent right away.

“It is a true test to see where we are at this point,” Waters said. “We have to rebound and defend. If we don’t rebound, it will be a long night for us. If we do, we will have a chance.”

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