- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

Two years ago, George Mason garnered considerable adulation for its astonishing run to the Final Four. Some of it was because of a likable team. And some of it was for the sort of underdog tale America falls in love with, for better or worse.

And then there was coach Jim Larranaga, a genial, respected teacher of the game with a winning smile, a New York accent and a lot of good will.

The Patriots are back in the NCAA tournament this season after a one-year hiatus, and many of the stars of the 2006 team — Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn — have moved on.

But Larranaga (along with two starters from ‘06) remains, arguably a bigger name than ever. Shortly after the brackets were announced last night, Larranaga scribbled his signature on a mini-basketball with his photo on it, providing a reminder of just how much coaches serve as the face of a college basketball program.

The same is true to some extent of both American and Georgetown, which will join Mason when the tournament begins at sites across the country later this week.

George Mason (23-10) drew the No. 12 seed in the East Region and will meet fifth-seeded Notre Dame in Denver on Thursday. Georgetown (27-5), winner of the Big East regular season and a Final Four team a year ago, is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest and will play University of Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.

Patriot League champion American (21-11) is the No. 15 seed in the East and will play second-seeded Tennessee on Friday in Birmingham, Ala.

All can be used as a study in how a team can take on its coach’s personality. The Hoyas followed the example of the cerebral, low-key John Thompson III a year ago to reach the Final Four.

And it was that same steady approach that permitted Georgetown to match its regular-season accomplishments of a year ago, sans a Big East tournament title.

“I think the biggest difference between this season and last was the fact that this year we got everybody’s best shot,” Thompson said. “We played with a target on our backs from the first day to the last. And for the most part, I thought our guys handled it pretty well.”

There were pitfalls along the way, including a December thrashing at Memphis and three other road losses. But there also was an unerring ability to coax victories in close games, as well as coping with guard Chris Wright’s ankle injury.

“Losing Chris certainly forced us to change some of the things we had planned to do this season in terms of tempo,” Thompson said.

That was but a minor bump compared to the career arc of American coach Jeff Jones. After he resigned under pressure at Virginia in 1998, Jones resurfaced seven seasons ago with the Eagles and set to work building a Patriot League contender.

His first three years, American reached the league final before losing. The last three seasons, the Eagles hovered at around .500 in the conference.

But Year No. 7 proved lucky, particularly for a coach who hadn’t reached the tournament since 1997.

“For me, it’s been awhile since I’ve had the chance to be part of a team that’s participating,” Jones said. “And having so many close calls and falling short, it makes this experience so much sweeter.”

Of course, his patience and resilience no doubt rubbed off on his players, who are part of a breakthrough team — American’s first to reach the NCAA tournament.

“We’ve finally taken that last step,” Jones said. “Quite honestly, I take a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to do prior to this in terms of trying to build a program. But until you take this step, winning the league and being included in the NCAA tournament, that’s the step. That’s the one that everybody wanted. And until you do that, it’s hard to really appreciate the other things.”

It’s been easy for several years to do that over at Mason, where there is little question about Larranaga’s influence. His upbeat approach permeates through the Patriots, who were always smiling throughout their run of two years ago.

That same attitude was present at last week’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Richmond, where Larranaga’s penchant for storytelling, positive thoughts and perhaps even a little well-intended hyperbole shone through.

“This year we need to go out there with the same mind-set that we had two years ago in a sense that we’re going to have more fun than anybody else, we’re going to relax and enjoy the journey,” Larranaga said. “But the greatest fun — and I tell the players this all the time — is playing great basketball, of executing the game plan and knowing you’re a great team.”

There’s a playful facet to Larranaga, a part of him that encourages games of dodge ball and whiffle ball at the end of practice. And that same side of him also relies on one-on-one discussions with his players, all the better to keep their minds right.

“Coach L is a great motivator,” senior guard Folarin Campbell said. “He knows how to motivate his team and get them to play well. When you do that for your players and make them have faith in you and the team, you can win.”

And make a big difference for your program.

Bob Cohn and Barker Davis contributed to this report.

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