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Mason Relieved to Be Included

george mason university - selection sunday
Jai Lewis, far left, Folarin Campbell, Gabe Norwood and Makan Konate celebrate the Patriots at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. George Mason, a No. 11 seed, will have the pleasure of facing No. 6 seed Michigan State in Dayton, Ohio on Friday. (Ana Pimsler - AP)

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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006

When the long wait finally ended, when the words "George Mason" appeared at the top of Jim Larranaga's wide-screen TV in his basement family room in Oakton last night, the Patriots coach turned toward senior guard Tony Skinn and wrapped his arms around him.

Larranaga's wife, Liz, and two other players joined them. Skinn buried his head in the tangle of arms and began to cry -- tears of relief that his terrible act at the Colonial Athletic Association tournament had not cost his Patriots an at-large berth in the NCAA event.

"I told him he needed to sit next to me," Larranaga said after the Patriots finished celebrating their first trip to the NCAAs in five years. "I just knew how he would be feeling. . . . If we don't get in, you start looking inward."

Skinn, a Takoma Park native and the team's second-leading scorer, had punched a Hofstra player in the groin near the end of a CAA semifinal loss in Richmond on March 5. A furious and embarrassed Larranaga immediately suspended him for the next game, regardless of whether it would be in the NCAA tournament or the National Invitation Tournament.

The replay of the incident had been shown nationwide, and GMU officials were worried that it could further jeopardize the team's NCAA hopes, which already were in peril after a poor showing in the league tournament.

"It's all everybody has been talking about, so definitely, in the back of my mind, I was hoping and praying that incident wouldn't cost the team," said Skinn, whose college career will end Friday unless the 11th-seeded Patriots are able to upset No. 6 Michigan State in Dayton, Ohio.

"Coach has been doing it for a long time, so it was his advice that I should be close to him. I was nervous. I'm just glad we made it."

Added Larranaga: "Tony has experienced something that is so difficult, that kind of adversity, it's hard to even imagine what's going through his mind. . . . I know Tony regretted it and was sorry the moment he did it, but the healing process takes longer than just that moment. For George Mason University, our men's basketball program and especially for Tony, by being invited to the tournament, it helps put that behind us."

Besides his concern about Skinn, Larranaga was worried about the way the tournament field was unfolding. Gathered in a room decorated with GMU photos and certificates, the team watched nervously as Texas A&M and Bradley got in. It saw fellow bubble teams like Air Force and Seton Hall receive bids too.

The CAA's history -- no multiple berths in 20 years -- also was working against the Patriots. And if the league did get two slots, Hofstra, which beat George Mason twice in 10 days, might be the one to join CAA champion UNC Wilmington.

In the end, the Patriots' outstanding Rating Percentage Index most of the season, their 15-3 record in a vastly improved league, a late nonconference victory at Wichita State and close losses to teams from major conferences (Wake Forest and Mississippi State) did the trick.

"The first thing is that George Mason and the University of North Carolina Wilmington tied for the regular season championship," said Craig Littlepage, athletic director at the University of Virginia and chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee. "George Mason wasn't tied with Hofstra, so we didn't look at that as a situation where we needed to look at a tiebreaker. We looked at George Mason as a team that was a regular season co-champion. We looked at their nonconference schedule and felt they put together a solid package in terms of those games, and they won a fair share of those games. They were a very good team for us."

As the borderline teams were being announced, "All of them are behind us in the RPI and I thought, well, maybe the RPI is not going to be as big a factor as it has been in certain years," Larranaga said. "Now that we're in, it really doesn't matter why; now it's a matter of preparing to play well."

However, not only will they be without Skinn (13 points per game), the Patriots will have to hope leading scorer and rebounder Jai Lewis is healthy again after playing on two sprained ankles last week. Then there is the critical matter of regaining an offensive rhythm after a weak overtime effort against seven-win Georgia State in the CAA quarterfinals and a second-half meltdown against Hofstra in the semis.

The Patriots, who have never won an NCAA tournament game in three previous appearances, played Michigan State early last season in the BB&T Classic in Washington, losing 66-60. They are 1-12 all-time against Big Ten teams, the only win coming against Northwestern in 1984.

"We've played against big teams before. They're a physical team, we're a physical team," senior guard Lamar Butler said. "We're not scared at all, we're not intimidated."


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