- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

About this time three years ago, George Mason basketball coach Jim Larranaga would start a recruiting pitch, only to hear replies concerning the most basic things.

Where is the school? What sort of team do you have?

Understandably, the Patriots‘ 2006 Final Four appearance - and the team’s return trip to the NCAA tournament last spring - changed the dynamic considerably. Receptiveness increased, and awareness of the Fairfax school expanded.

“Now it’s, ‘This is Coach Larranaga from George Mason,’ [and the answer is] ‘George Mason, wow,’ and there’s some excitement in their voice,” Larranaga said. “We want to keep that going.”

It’s a natural inclination, but there’s also a level of necessity to it as well. As George Mason’s profile expanded, so did the exposure for the rest of the Patriots’ Colonial Athletic Association brethren.

The annual search for “the next George Mason” and the ponderings of any sort of Mason Effect are a reliable source of discussion. But as CAA coaches have learned, the entire league is a winner from the Patriots’ push.

The conference is a more recognizable television commodity. It placed multiple teams in the NCAA tournament in 2006 and 2007. And perhaps most important in the long run, any coach in the league can mention the Final Four without fear of being brushed off.

“George Mason changed the face of this conference, and then VCU followed up by beating Duke in the first round [in 2007],” Towson coach Pat Kennedy said. “We’re probably going to sign four kids in the early signing period, and four years ago I probably couldn’t have gotten into their homes.”

It’s a class Kennedy believes will be the best in school history, and he proudly declared that his verbal commitments spent their other official visits taking trips to Atlantic 10, Big East and Conference USA schools.

In some ways, the rise of the Atlantic 10 about 15 years ago is a reasonable parallel. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint was an assistant at Massachusetts in the early 1990s as the Minutemen emerged as a national power.

But in the years before that, there was one recognizable program in the conference recruits were sure to know.

“We always looked at Temple because Temple was the team that always did everything,” said Flint, who later was the Minutemen’s coach. “When we said we played against Temple, everybody’s eyes lit up. Then it got to the point we didn’t have to talk about Temple anymore. Everybody knew about everybody in the league, and I think the same thing is happening here.”

Of course, no one benefits as much as George Mason, which is coming off a 23-11 season and opens Saturday at Vermont.

For years, Larranaga’s recruiting strategy was predicated on using the District as a bull’s-eye and then seeking out players from adjacent states. All five of the starters on the Final Four team were from Maryland, and none grew up more than 100 miles from Fairfax.

The Patriots’ class this year is different, drawing in two players from Florida, one from Charlotte, N.C., and another from New York.

“There are times you have to go outside the local area,” Larranaga said. “The Final Four has given us name recognition outside our local area, and the TV appearances since our Final Four have allowed us to go into the homes of players who are much more familiar with our school, our basketball program than ever before.”

Unquestionably, the CAA’s schools can cover a larger geographic area with an impressive brand name. And no one doubts the quality of play, especially in the top two-thirds of the league.

But it is also a stretch to say elite prospects are suddenly clamoring for a CAA school over a power-conference program - even George Mason’s run couldn’t entirely crack the recruiting divide.

“That whole league has improved,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “If they’re going head up with an ACC school, they’re not beating an ACC school. But Jimmy’s created an identity, an energy. They have a fun style of play. He’s obviously a proven coach. They have some ownership from their university and community. All those things are obviously positive.”

The support George Mason enjoys is something anyone would welcome. While that doesn’t necessarily help other schools, the Patriots’ prominent spot in recent years is something Kennedy said everyone else in the CAA acknowledges and uses to their advantage.

James Johnson has a unique viewpoint. He was an assistant at George Mason during the Patriots’ Final Four run, then spent another year with the program before landing a spot on Greenberg’s staff in Blacksburg, Va.

From his time at the epicenter of George Mason’s magical run to his time at a major program in the same region, he sees the difference throughout the CAA in the last three years.

“I think the rest of the league kind of used that as a springboard for them to at least get involved with some different type of kids so they may have that opportunity to go and try to do something like that,” Johnson said. “Which is very difficult, but at least [they can] try to do it.”

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