Campbell, Local Talent Key to GMU's Success

The Patriots meet at half court after wrapping up their practice at Verizon Center, where George Mason will face Wichita State and Connecticut will play Washington in the region semifinals.
The Patriots meet at half court after wrapping up their practice at Verizon Center, where George Mason will face Wichita State and Connecticut will play Washington in the region semifinals. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

Early in his senior year at Springbrook High in Silver Spring, Folarin Campbell told his high school coach that he wanted to go to George Mason. Then he asked that coach, Keith Adams, whether he was disappointed.

It was not a typical reaction from a player just deciding to accept a Division I scholarship, but Campbell was not a typical Montgomery County player. The previous year he had averaged more than 26 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists per game, earning All-Met honors. Friends, teammates and opposing coaches thought he was destined for the ACC or the Big East. Then he told them he was headed for Fairfax.

Two-and-a-half years later, Campbell's decision appears as inspired as his high school career. George Mason is one of 16 schools still alive in the NCAA tournament. The Patriots' locally grown lineup will face Wichita State tonight in a downtown arena that will be filled with family and friends. And the greatest month in George Mason basketball history has been keyed by two of Campbell's best collegiate performances; he had 21 points on 8-of-8 shooting against Michigan State and had 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists against North Carolina.

"He took a lot of heat for going to George Mason, but it was the easiest decision he could make," Adams said. "He had a lot of scholarships, but you have to remember, he's a family kid. When he said, 'This is where I'd like to go, is it okay with you? I don't want to disappoint you, are you okay with it?' I said, 'Hey, it's up to you.' "

This week has been what Campbell envisioned when he turned down Providence and preempted the recruiting process by committing early to George Mason, a school that had never won an NCAA tournament game before last week.

"I mean, everybody wants to go to a big-time school just because you want to be on TV, or to have a chance to win in the NCAA tournament, but you've got to go somewhere where you know you can play," Campbell said. "I chose George Mason because I knew I could come here, right away my freshman year, and play. And I did that. And, my sophomore year, I'm starting now, contributing to the team, going to the NCAA tournament, going to the Sweet 16. It's just a wonderful feeling. I don't regret anything."

Campbell, along with fellow sophomores Will Thomas and John Vaughan, was close to the Platonic ideal of George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga's recruiting philosophy, which called for a sustained effort to earn early commitments from local stars. For much of the regular season, the Patriots were the only Division I team to start five players from the state of Maryland. Many of them had a chance to go to better-known programs, including Campbell, whose high school exploits remain legendary. There was the time he scored 51 points against Richard Montgomery.

"We just pretty much threw everything we could at him," Richard Montgomery Coach Scott Spear said. "Our defense was completely concentrated on him, to try to just keep him from the ball, but there was nothing you could do once he touched the ball."

There was the Maryland 4A final against Northwestern and future Georgetown star Jeff Green, in which Campbell left the court because of a sprained ankle that swelled to the size of an orange. At halftime, with Springbrook trailing by 12, Adams asked whether Campbell wanted to give it another try. He reentered the game and scored 18 second-half points, including an off-balance three-pointer that tied the score in the final 15 seconds.

"I'm telling you, he hobbled out and all I could think of was the Knicks and Willis Reed; that's all I could think about," former Northwestern coach Tony Dickens said this week. "It was a great performance."

As a freshman at George Mason, Campbell averaged nearly 17 minutes a game while playing shooting guard and small forward. Like Thomas and Vaughan, he was named to the Colonial Athletic Association all-rookie team. But his shooting percentage was a disappointing 41 percent, and coaches decided to turn the high school scoring machine into a college point guard.

"He's the kind of player that adapts to whatever situation he's in," assistant coach Scott Cherry said. "If we ask him to come off a screen and look to score and get to the basket, then he does that. If we give him the ball and tell him to run the team and get guys where they're supposed to be, he does that, too."

George Mason is quite possibly the only team in the tournament with a point guard known as "Shaq" -- Campbell's nickname since grade school, when he towered over his classmates. Despite his outburst last weekend, he calls himself the team's fourth or fifth scoring option, and several teammates said Campbell's maturation as a point guard has been responsible for their 18-3 record since the New Year.

"He's a terrific player, one of those guys where you look at the stats and they don't overwhelm you, but you know there's a lot more to it than just the numbers," Wichita State assistant Tad Boyle said. "I think he's kind of the X-factor for them, to be honest with you."


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