- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

This season has been an unmitigated success for George Mason basketball — except on the court.

A Patriot Center record crowd came to Fairfax to see the Final Four banner unveiled in the home opener. And fans have continued to flock to see the Patriots in unprecedented numbers. George Mason’s average attendance was 6,834 — shattering the previous high by more than 2,000 — and included two sellouts and seven of the top 20 crowds in program history.

“I couldn’t have imagined that,” George Mason university president Alan Merten said. “It brought people in here. It brought out a television audience and we are a topic of conversation. We are ecstatic.”

A crowd of just fewer than 10,000 packed Patriot Center for the home opener against Wichita State in the first nationally televised game from the facility. George Mason has been a staple on the air this season after coming out of obscurity in last year’s NCAA tournament. The suddenly hot program also received previously unseen interest from newspapers and other media outlets and now is a brand name in college basketball.

“We arrived last year in the Verizon Center on a very special weekend in March,” coach Jim Larranaga said of the Patriots’ unimaginable upset over top-seed Connecticut to reach the Final Four. “Two years ago, our goal was to get 5,000 fans. Now we have 6,800. Will they come back next year?”

While the Patriots seemed to have found their niche and are now a much more desired attraction in Northern Virginia, there are some concerns about their staying power after a down season. The Patriots withered under the bright lights, finishing 15-14 in the regular season and 9-9 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The nine conference wins ended a streak of eight consecutive seasons with at least 10 CAA victories.

George Mason is also in jeopardy of having its first non-winning season since Larranaga’s first season in 1997-98.

The Patriots graduated Lamar Butler, Tony Skinn and Jai Lewis from last season. They have undergone constant lineup changes and found few answers, particularly on offense. George Mason will try to salvage the season in the CAA tournament, where it enters as a long shot as the sixth seed. The Patriots will need to win four straight in Richmond, starting tonight against 11th-seeded James Madison, to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

“People are putting pressure on themselves because they are not playing as well as they think they should,” said guard Folarin Campbell, one of two returning starters from the Final Four squad with power forward Will Thomas. “It’s taken a little longer than we thought it would. Hopefully we can do something this year.”

Campbell and Thomas have been the most consistent players on a group that has struggled for confidence and rarely found an offensive spark. Guard John Vaughan, who missed last season because of knee surgery after making the All-CAA rookie team in 2004-05, was expected to be the Patriots’ top outside threat and stretch defenses to give Thomas room to work in the post.

The Patriots have averaged only 62.6 points, and their deficiencies have been personified by Vaughan. The sophomore averaged 17.8 points in the first four games, but has since lost his starting job and seen his minutes decrease. Vaughan has averaged 4.0 points in his last six games while missing 13 of 14 3-pointers.

“There really is no simple explanation to how the human mind works,” Larranaga said. “He clearly is dealing with some psychological barrier that he hasn’t been able to overcome yet. He is probably the one player that puts so much pressure on himself that he is his own worst enemy.”

Vaughan feels getting accustomed to the Patriots’ new-found attention and status has been a challenge.

“I think part of it was adjusting,” Vaughan said. “This year, there are more people in the stands, more TV cameras, more interviews, just more distractions. We have fun with it, but it’s been different.”

Vaughan is one of many players struggling in new roles. Guards Jordan Carter and Gabe Norwood have been inconsistent in enhanced roles after shining as role players last season. A pair of junior college transfers, guard Dre Smith and forward Darryl Monroe, have also been up and down.

And the result has been a sour season following the banner one. The nadir came last Saturday in their 73-50 loss at Northeastern to deny the Patriots their 10th conference win. “I didn’t think we would lose that,” Larranaga said. George Mason made one of 10 3-pointers and only five of 16 free throws while suffering its worst defeat in two seasons.

“Maybe the returning players other than Will and Folarin did not realize how much they were going to have to step up to fill big shoes,” Larranaga said. “We had certain expectations for the year and we felt like we were going to be capable of reaching those expectations. In reality, I probably expected too much from our veteran players and our newcomers too early.”

The Patriots appeared to be making a move with a five-game winning streak in January against the non-elite CAA teams but soon returned to the back of the pack . In an uneven season, those five straight victories marked the only time George Mason won back-to-back games this season.

While this season has been difficult, the future looks bright. The Patriots return all their regular starters, including Campbell and Smith, and eight of the 10 players in their rotation. They will start a veteran squad with perhaps four seniors and a junior.

George Mason might show promise next season, but that doesn’t take away the sting of this disappointing season, which has drawn larger crowds and increased attention but not enough wins.

“Even better than keeping the [10-win] streak alive would be winning the conference tournament,” Larranaga said. “That would erase any of the bad memories and bad taste we have in our mouths right now.”

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