- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

The scene was an otherwise forgettable preseason game at George Mason, the kind of tuneup that draws little fanfare at big-time programs, much less at a mid-major commuter school.

On this night, however, Andy Katz of ESPN sat on press row. Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager and school president Alan Merten watched from the front row. About 3,000 fans — more than made it to several regular-season games last season — found their way to Patriot Center.

“You go to the Final Four and a whole lot of stuff changes,” said point guard Folarin Campbell, who, along with power forward Will Thomas, is one of two returning starters. “We have to take that bone and try to lead this team again to the NCAA tournament. And try to make another run for it. We don’t want to be just a one-year wonder. We have pride in ourselves to do it again.”

George Mason, as expected, posted a lopsided win over Division III Marymount. The post-Final Four Patriots will open for real Saturday at Cleveland State.

The surprising attention at that exhibition marks only the beginning for the Patriots, who are sure to fill arenas wherever they go and figure to sell out their nearly 10,000-seat home — something that happened only four times in the building’s 21-year history and not at all last season.

Season ticket sales more than tripled, from about 800 to more than 2,600. Television appearances ballooned to an unprecedented 15 games, with one on ESPN (at Duke, Dec. 9) and two on ESPN2 (Wichita State, Nov. 18; Hofstra, Feb. 10).

The new feel around last season’s golden boys also comes with an appropriate new look.

“I said, ‘What would you want as kind of a nice reward for what we accomplished?’ ” said Jim Larranaga, the methodical coach who went from obscurity to national celebrity during George Mason’s run. “They said, ‘Can we get gold uniforms?’ ”

It has been seven months since the Patriots, who had never won an NCAA tournament game previously, stunned the basketball world by sweeping Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to earn a Final Four berth.

The natural question: What will they do for an encore?

“This is not about last year,” said Larranaga, who has taken George Mason to three NCAA tournaments in his nine seasons in Fairfax. “This is about this team right now and how good this team can get. If we believed in other people’s expectations, we never could have gotten to the Final Four.”

Those expectations certainly have risen outside the program, even though the Patriots lost three core players — Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn — from last season’s 27-win group.

Even so, the future looks as bright as their new unis.

“I think we will be better than last year,” Campbell said. “We still have guys who can run the floor. We still have guys who can shoot and pass. We have the capabilities to have all five guys on the court score double-figures. I think we are deeper.”

Guard John Vaughan, who missed last season because of a knee injury, returns. The 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore started 15 games as freshman and was considered the best player in the recruiting class that included Campbell and Thomas. Junior college All-American guard Andre Smith is a defensive catalyst and prolific all-around scorer who should help make up for the loss of Butler and Skinn.

Another junior college transfer, 6-7, 260-pound Darryl Monroe, looks like the perfect complement in the post to Thomas, who averaged 13 points and nine rebounds in the NCAA tournament.

“We have probably the best two big men in the country,” said Gabe Norwood, who likely will start as the swingman. “We have Will Thomas, who is just a force down low. He is going to get double- and triple-teamed. And we have Darryl Monroe, who is probably the most unselfish big man I have played with. He always thinks pass first.”

The Patriots may be as — or even more — talented than last season. And they certainly will be deeper with highly touted freshman Louis Birdsong backing up the interior players and veterans like Jordan Carter in reserve on the perimeter.

Of course, it remains to be seen if they can play as well, particularly on defense and in rebounding. George Mason was picked to finish second in the CAA behind Hofstra in the league’s preseason poll, and several publications forecast the Patriots to win the league.

Even if the Patriots don’t win the conference tournament, another at-large bid would be in reach with a strong CAA record and nonconference success against a tough schedule that includes visits to Duke and mid-major power Creighton. The Patriots will unveil the Final Four banner before the rematch with Sweet 16 opponent Wichita State. George Mason also will play host to Mississippi State and an ESPN Bracket Buster contest.

For now, the Patriots clearly are enjoying their newfound celebrity and the sense that nothing is impossible.

“It’s hard not to have more confidence,” Norwood said. “We feel we are one of the better teams in this conference and we can compete with anybody in the country. Especially after last year, it definitely puts things in perspective for us. You have to be focused from the beginning. That is something we definitely want, and we definitely want to be in Atlanta [for the Final Four] this spring.”

That type of talk would have been laughable last season. Suddenly, it can’t be dismissed.

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