Patriots Hope Big Night Is Not a Bust

By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 18, 2006

George Mason had just finished disposing of Drexel on Wednesday night when guard Lamar Butler noticed it.

"You could see it in Coach's eyes," Butler said. "As soon as the game was over, he was like, 'I'm ready for Wichita State.' "

In what may be the most highly anticipated game George Mason has played in a long time, the Patriots travel to Kansas to play the Shockers of the Missouri Valley Conference tonight. The game is part of Bracket Busters, a made-for-TV event that pairs similar mid-major programs seeking to enhance their NCAA tournament résumés. It will be only the second time in school history that George Mason has appeared in a nationally televised game during the regular season.

The implications of tonight's game could be huge for the Patriots, who are enjoying one of the best seasons in school history.

George Mason (20-5) sits in first place in the Colonial Athletic Association, is on the cusp of breaking into the top 25 after receiving 19 votes in the latest Associated Press poll and ranks No. 27 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index. A win against Wichita State (21-6), the top team in the Missouri Valley, would likely move the Patriots into the top 25 for the first time in school history and also would go a long way toward securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they falter in the CAA tournament next month. The CAA traditionally has sent only one team to the NCAA tournament.

"I think it's bigger than George Mason versus Wichita State," forward Jai Lewis said. "I think it's CAA vs. Missouri Valley. We're fighting to get two teams, two bids in the NCAAs. That's our main goal, to go out there and represent the CAA."

Wichita State presents a significant challenge for George Mason. The Shockers, who are coming off a 62-61 overtime win against Creighton, are 13-1 at Charles Koch Arena, where they have sold out 12 of 14 games this season. Their only home loss was to Northern Iowa, which recently dropped out of the top 25.

"We know that there'll be 10,600 Shockers waving yellow towels and wearing yellow T-shirts," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said. "From what I hear, it's just a tremendous environment for college basketball. It will give our team a chance to test themselves."

Larranaga is particularly impressed with Wichita State's Paul Miller, who he said reminded him of Sacramento Kings all-star center Brad Miller. Paul Miller, a 6-foot-10 fifth-year senior center, is averaging 13 points and 6.6 rebounds. He is one of four players who is averaging in double figures in scoring for the Shockers. Sean Ogirri, a 6-2 sophomore guard, has made 65 three-point baskets and is shooting 43 percent from three-point range.

Wichita State is one of four Missouri Valley teams -- Creighton, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois are the others -- that received votes in the most recent AP poll. George Mason already has faced one Missouri Valley team this season. The Patriots lost at home to Creighton, 72-52, in November.

"We've played in a lot of hostile environments, and we've done well," guard Folarin Campbell said. "We've just got to go out there and play our game, just play some defense. If we go out there and play good defense, we'll come out with a win."

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