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Mason has crowd, UConn the history

George Mason is the talk of the town and the talk of the college basketball world. After 28 largely anonymous years in Division I athletics, the 35-year-old university can make history today with one more victory in the NCAA Tournament.

And while a roaring home crowd in the Verizon Center should provide a huge edge, the bottom line is this: You're still comparing an apple to an orange when you stack up the Patriots against top-seeded Connecticut with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

"They're just humongous," Mason guard Lamar Butler said here Saturday. "We have to negate that with our speed. We can't let them get comfortable. We have to get out and pressure the ball. They lace their shoes up just like we do."

A win in today's regional final would make Mason the first mid-major to make the Final Four since Penn and Indiana State headed to Salt Lake City in 1979. It's a run no one could see coming from a school that had never won an NCAA Tournament game until upsetting Michigan State in last week's first round.

While UConn gets McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA studs, Mason stays local. All of its starters are from Maryland and none was highly recruited other than forward Folarin Campbell (Providence, Georgetown). Sophomore forward Will Thomas picked Mason over St. Bonaventure and the College of Charleston.

"I've told our players, quite frankly, if the name on our jersey was not 'George Mason' and it was 'Georgia Tech' from the ACC, everyone would look at this differently," coach Jim Larranaga said.

There's no shortage of talent. Jai Lewis, the 6-foot-7, 275-pound senior center, looks like he may go the road of Antonio Gates and give the NFL a try as a tight end. Senior guard Lamar Butler is the jokester, running around the court with a 100-watt smile and cracking jokes behind the microphone. Fellow guard Tony Skinn and swingman Campbell are both strong playmakers and three-point threats.

Larranaga has gotten this team here in his ninth season and third trip to the NCAAs. Mason was 16-13 last year (including a 95-58 win at St. Bonaventure) and only ranked 154th in the RPIs. But the Patriots won nine of their final 14 games to set a tone for this season.

Larranaga is the professorial type, a balding 56-year-old with gray hair who looks like he could be at the front of a lecture hall as easily as in front of the bench.

Practice often gets broken up with outbursts of nerf baseball and games are met with motivational quips. Before the Patriots played North Carolina last week, Larranaga reminded his team that the Tar Heels were Superman but that Kryptonite could stop the superhero. What color was Kryptonite? Green.

Larranaga didn't have a saying for Friday night's win over Wichita State because he heard Butler walking through the locker room wailing, "They don't know what's coming, they don't know what's coming."

"I liked that," Larranaga said. "So I left it at that."

The Mason campus is in a pastoral setting in suburban Fairfax, Va., with tree-lined roads that remind you of the back routes on the University at Buffalo's Amherst campus. It has 30,000 students, making it the largest school in Virginia, and has a highly regarded law school and two Nobel Prize winners in the economics department.

Its home arena, the 10,000-seat Patriot Center, has an edifice that looks a lot like UB's Alumni Arena. The average attendance this year was just over 4,500 with two crowds in the 2,700 range. Bet on more people in the seats next year.

The biggest question this week among the national media: Who the heck is George Mason? He was a Patriot (hence the nickname) who wrote the Virginia Constitution and helped write the U.S. Constitution. But he refused to sign it when the Founding Fathers didn't outlaw slavery.

The school's basketball history is mostly nondescript. Mason dabbled with Paul Westhead as its coach for four years in the mid-'90s but his racehorse style never produced the results it did a few years earlier at Loyola Marymount and he went just 38-70.

Larranaga came from Bowling Green in 1997 and quickly became known for his ear-splitting whistle that gets his players attention -- even over the roar of 20,000 fans.

"Most coaches have a whistle around his neck but he just uses his fingers," Skinn said. "I try to pay close attention so he doesn't do it right in my ear."

"He doesn't need a microphone. He uses it and it's an instant headache," Butler said. "After a while your head gets adjusted to that thing but it's ridiculous."

Larranaga, who played college ball with Ernie DiGregorio at Providence in the early '70s, has known UConn coach Jim Calhoun for nearly 30 years.

"I have great respect for his coaching ability," Calhoun said. "I'm as blown away by psychologically what he's done with this team and the kind of confidence they're playing with. When they throw the ball up [today], we know who we're facing."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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