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GMU's Larranaga Taking Patriots Down the Right Path

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Sunday was not a good day for Jim Larranaga. His George Mason basketball team fell apart in the second half of its Colonial Athletic Association semifinal against Hofstra and lost, 58-49, putting Mason's once bright NCAA tournament hopes in serious jeopardy.

But the pain of the loss didn't compare to the situation Larranaga found himself in the moments after the game. With 55 seconds left in the game and after hitting a three-point shot to cut Hofstra's lead to 53-49, senior point guard Tony Skinn threw a below-the-belt punch at Hofstra's Loren Stokes, who crumpled to the ground in pain. Larranaga didn't see what happened initially, but, he said, he knew Skinn had done something wrong by the look in his eyes.

"Maybe it was coaching instinct; maybe it was because I've known Tony for four years," he said yesterday. "But I knew something bad had just taken place. I could tell by his reaction when I asked him what happened that he had done something he had regretted. We all have moments in life where we do something or say something we wish we could take back an instant later. I think this was one of those times. Tony Skinn is a very, very good kid. He made a mistake. I didn't think there was any choice at all but to take him out of the game immediately, regardless of the score."

The Patriots still had a chance to win, especially with Skinn, perhaps their best late-game outside shooter, on the floor. But he watched from the bench while Hofstra made its free throws down the stretch to seal Mason's fate. After Larranaga spoke to the media he went to look at a tape of what had happened.

"It wasn't the greatest angle," he said. "With my old eyes, it was tough to see. But I could see enough that I knew what had to be done."

Larranaga met with Athletic Director Tom O'Connor to be certain he concurred. Once the two had talked, George Mason announced that Skinn would be suspended for its next game -- whether it's in the NCAA tournament or in the NIT.

"When we recruit a player, we tell him that there are three things that are absolutes if they are going to be a part of our program," Larranaga said. "The first is that they always have a positive attitude. The second is an unconditional commitment to what they're doing on the court and in the classroom, and the third is that they act in a first-class manner at all times. I know some people will find that corny but that's been the way I've coached for 22 years. If any of our kids fails to meet one of those principles, I'm going to respond. Unfortunately, Tony failed to meet one of those on Sunday night. I'm not going to tell you I did it without any hesitation. . . . But there's no question in my mind that it was the right thing to do."

The suspension could further jeopardize Mason's chances to get into the NCAA tournament. One thing the tournament selection committee considers is whether a team is missing a key player. For example, if Pops Mensah-Bonsu's knee injury was going to force him to miss the tournament, George Washington's seeding would probably be affected. Given that George Mason, now 23-7, is clearly on the bubble, the committee might use Skinn's absence for a first-round game as a factor.

"If I'm in the room, I don't bump them because of that," said GW Athletic Director Jack Kvancz, who served on the committee for five years. "One game, coach's decision, I don't take them out of the field because of that. But that's just me. Some other guys might see it differently. I might seed them a spot or two lower, but I wouldn't knock them out altogether if I thought they deserved to be in. I happen to think they deserve to get in because I've seen them play a lot."

Kvancz won't be in the room, though, when that decision is made. Neither will O'Connor, even though he is on the committee. When his team is discussed, he will be asked to leave. Larranaga and his players spent yesterday hoping Hofstra would continue its late-season roll in the championship game by beating UNC Wilmington. Because the Pride beat the Patriots twice in 10 days late in the season and because the two teams' résumés are almost identical, it likely would be ahead in the at-large pecking order. The same is not true for UNCW. It split the season series with Mason, and its out-of-conference résumé and RPI ranking are not as strong as those of Larranaga's team.

Larranaga's decision drew responses from other coaches yesterday that were far from neutral.

"It sends chills through my entire body to hear what Jim did," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Honestly, if he was here right now, I'd give him a big hug. We need more coaches to have the courage to step up in situations like this and say to our kids, 'That's wrong; I'm not making excuses for you.' If I were in the same situation, I hope I'd be gutsy enough and strong enough to do the same thing, but I can't swear to you that I would. If a big-name coach did something like that, people would be fitting him for sainthood by tomorrow.

"Whatever Jim does the rest of his career, any championships he might win, this is as good and as important a thing as he'll ever do as a coach. I can't tell you how much I admire him for doing this."

Maryland Coach Gary Williams, who has never been especially close to Larranaga, agreed.

"Given their situation, it takes guts to do something like that," he said. "I think a lot of us will say he did the right thing. The question is, how many of us would actually do it? Jim did it."

Larranaga, 56, isn't looking for any kudos.

"I've been doing this a long time now," he said. "Maybe when you're in your thirties and you're climbing the coaching ladder and you're looking for your next job, you react differently. Maybe you don't do something that might make it tougher to get into the NCAAs. When you're old, you don't worry about things like that. You worry about doing what you think is best for your school and for the kids you coach. I honestly believe this is the best thing -- regardless of where it leads us."

Larranaga still hopes to be part of the field of 65 on Sunday.

"I really think all three teams [Mason, Hofstra and UNCW] are deserving of bids," he said. "All three of us have made good cases to be invited. I'll put my faith in the committee doing the right thing."

One person hoping to see Mason included will be Krzyzewski.

"I'm a believer in the basketball gods," he said. "I think they get things right at some point. I hope for Jim it's this week. If it's not, I think it will happen somewhere, sometime."

Larranaga and his players have six torturous days before they find out what the basketball gods -- and the committee -- have in mind for them.

"I know how important basketball is to these kids," Larranaga said. "I know the stress they feel at this time of the season. Tony was having a very frustrating night, and he reacted out of that frustration. It was the kind of thing I know he knew was wrong the instant he did it. But you can't ignore it, that sends the wrong message to everyone."

Regardless of what happens Sunday, there's no doubting the message Larranaga sent to Skinn, to his players and to all of college basketball. It is a message that needs to be sent far more often in athletics at all levels.

George Mason lost a critical basketball game Sunday. But those connected to the school have a lot to be proud of.

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