- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2011

Making the NCAA basketball tournament never gets old for George Mason. When you’ve been The Invisible Program for three decades — lost in the Georgetown/Maryland shuffle — you don’t forget your humble beginnings, don’t forget where you came from. It’s still a kick on Selection Sunday to hear Greg Gumbel call your name — and set off an explosion of emotion in the Johnson Center Atrium, where the Patriots and their loyalists were gathered Sunday night.

The big difference this time was that Mason knew it was in, even though it hadn’t won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and secured an automatic bid. That’s how far the Patriots have come in their 14 seasons under Jim Larranaga. Larranaga has raised their profile to the point where they can shoulder their way into the NCAA tourney as an at-large team, despite their mid-major status. They did it in 2006, when they made their magical run to the Final Four, and they did it again this year, earning a No. 8 seed in the East and a matchup against Villanova on Friday in Cleveland.

Mason was such a lock after posting a 26-6 record and reeling off a school-record 16 straight wins that the coach told the crowd, “WHEN our name is called, let’s show the national TV audience how happy we are to be playing in the NCAA tournament.” When — not if. That’s progress.

And just think: Had Larranaga heeded his alma mater’s call three years ago and taken the Providence job when it was offered to him, he wouldn’t have been standing on that stage Sunday basking in the glow — players to his left, band members, cheerleaders, students and boosters all around him. He’s one of those rare coaches, though, who have found contentment in the proverbial Small Pond. He might have been a Friar in his playing days — a Friar through and through — but he’s a Patriot now, the face of the George Mason franchise.

Some of those who preceded him — Joe Harrington, Rick Barnes — couldn’t resist the allure of a bigger stage. (Heck, Barnes had barely unpacked his bags in Fairfax before the Big East beckoned.) Larranaga has laid down roots and built something lasting, built a program that has been invited to five NCAA tournaments since 1999. And it’s not going to stop here. His team next season, with four returning starters — and Sherrod Wright coming back from a shoulder injury — could be just as formidable.

Of course, it can never be 2006 again. That was a one-time deal. The Patriots will never sneak up on anybody they way they did that year on Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut (none of whom seemed to know quite what to make of them). It’s the price you pay for turning the NCAA tourney into your own personal fairytale. Villanova, you can be sure, will bring its A game to Quicken Loans Arena — and top-seeded Ohio State, which figures to be waiting in the next round, won’t take anything for granted, either.

But that’s OK. Mason is plenty battle-tested. The CAA, a one-bid conference many seasons, is sending three teams to the Big Dance this year (Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth being the others). And the Patriots showed during their long winning streak the ability to play extremely well for an extended period. During one eight-game stretch, they won games by 10, 26, 16, 19, 17, 15, 14 and 20 points.

What they want to do now, after losing by 16 to VCU in the second round of the conference tournament, is to get back to that level. If they can, they can give anybody in the NCAAs a game.

“You’re never really happy to lose,” said guard Cam Long, their leading scorer at 15.3 points a game. “But having that winning streak out of the way definitely takes some of the pressure off of us. Now we can relax and get ready to go.”

As an added bonus, they’ve been able to get haircuts. They refrained from them during their streak, never imagining it would last nearly two months — and frankly, they’d begun to get a bit scraggly. (But, hey, anything for team unity.)

When it was announced that Mason would face ‘Nova, the first thought that crossed forward Mike Morrison’s mind was: “Glad to play ‘em again.” The two teams crossed paths in Puerto Rico early last season, and the Patriots feel they let one get away. They had a four-point lead with 48 seconds left, but the Wildcats “made some big shots and beat us,” guard Andre Cornelius recalled — specifically a pair of three-pointers by Maalik Wayns and Isaiah Armwood (who are still around).

That’s the thing about these George Mason Patriots. They fear no opponent — and welcome the chance to even the score against a team from a conference that earned an unheard-of 11 bids this year (Georgetown, a 6-seed in the Southwest, among them). Villanova? Ohio State? Bring ‘em on.

But then, we’re not talking about any old mid-major. We’re talking about George Mason. At Mason, they know as well as anybody that, in the NCAA tournament, all things are possible.

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