Patriots Aren't Afraid of Heights

will thomas - george mason university
Will Thomas, pictured, and Jai Lewis may be undersized at 6-foot-7, but they have stood tall against some of the nation's more imposing front lines. In Sunday's upset of Connecticut, they combined for 39 points and 19 rebounds. (Win McNamee - Getty Images)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

George Mason guard Lamar Butler played out the matchups in his mind. On one side were Connecticut big men Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone, 13 feet 9 inches of professional basketball possibilities. On the other side were his teammates: Will Thomas, an undersized sophomore as beloved for his dance moves as for his left-handed hook shot, and Jai Lewis, a 275-pound cinder block with a 44-inch waistline and a basketball personality so relaxed Butler said he "looks like he's dead."

Butler thought this was a mismatch. He thought it wasn't even close. He thought Connecticut's much-touted towers didn't have a chance.

As it turned out, he was correct. George Mason dumped the ball inside to its unassuming big men -- each of whom is 6-7 -- again and again Sunday afternoon, in the opening possessions and in the final moments of its astonishing 86-84 overtime win. Lewis and Thomas scored the Patriots' first six points, and they scored eight of the Patriots' 12 points in overtime. NCAA tournament upsets are supposed to bubble up when small teams make a ridiculous number of outside shots, but the Patriots are in the Final Four because of a conviction that their forwards can play with any big men in the country.

"I told Jai and Will, 'Be prepared to score, go at them at will,' " Butler said. "Height doesn't mean anything. You can't measure heart, and those guys are very talented and skilled. They just dominated all season. Just because [Connecticut was] two inches taller, that didn't make a difference to us. We were still going to get the ball to those two guys for 40 minutes."

George Mason hasn't wavered from that plan this season, no matter the opponent. It started in the opening weekend of the season: against Wake Forest's 6-foot-9 Eric Williams and 6-foot-11 Kyle Visser, the George Mason duo combined for 28 points and 18 rebounds.

And it continued in the NCAA tournament. Lewis and Thomas faced a seven-inch deficit against Michigan State's frontcourt but combined for 31 points and 22 rebounds, and the Patriots finished with a sizable rebounding advantage. They faced another seven-inch deficit against Connecticut's frontcourt, but combined for 39 points and 19 rebounds, and again the Patriots had more rebounds than a major-conference team oozing major-conference height.

"They're strong, they're quick, and they have the most important ingredient you need," Coach Jim Larranaga said. "Basketball IQ and the heart to go with it."

Coaches said Lewis and Thomas are among their most intelligent players. The two go through a drill at every practice known as the "Pro Series," an assortment of inside moves named after NBA players, some of whom started their careers before Lewis and Thomas were born. The "Kevin McHale" is an up-and-under move. The "Hakeem Olajuwon" is a jump hook. The "Moses Malone" is a drop step. The "Tim Duncan" is a face-up bank shot. The "Patrick Ewing" is a turnaround.

Lewis has other moves, one called "The Tornado," in which he spins toward the baseline, and another in which he dribbles and spins toward the middle of the lane. Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said Lewis's silky footwork would allow him to challenge Jerry Rice on "Dancing With the Stars," and the NFL prospect also uses his bulk to create separation from defenders.

"When I bump them," he said, "they feel it."

Thomas, who was more a rebounder than an offensive threat when he arrived in Fairfax, is among the team's goofiest players off the court. And on the court?

"Grouchy, grumpy," said his high school coach, Pat Clatchey. "We just used to leave him alone. Sort of like a dog chewing on a bone: Don't stick your hand over there."

That toughness carried over into college -- Thomas made the Colonial Athletic Association's all-defensive team this season -- but his offensive game has also developed rapidly under the tutelage of Lewis and assistant coach Scott Cherry. He is now nearly automatic with his jump hook, and when defenders eventually overplay his left side he can reverse course with an up-and-under move.

Many CAA teams chose to double-team Lewis and Thomas whenever they touched the ball, a strategy made more difficult by the forwards' excellent passing skills. Wichita State went that route in the region semifinals, and the Patriots' three guards combined to make 50 percent of their three-point attempts and score 44 points. Connecticut, on the other hand, mostly left the two forwards in man-to-man matchups against taller defenders.

"The teams in those conferences, they feel like they've got good enough players to guard you one-on-one," said Cherry, who works with the post players in practice. "We knew if we threw the ball to them, they might not score every time, but they're going to score a high percentage of the time."

The Patriots' guards said they would happily exploit this unlikeliest of mismatches if opponents like Connecticut or Florida continue opting for one-on-one coverage.

"They're more athletic than us, they're taller than us, but the game of basketball, I'm learning so much about it, and it's not about the physical," guard Tony Skinn said. "It's about the mental, too. I never believed that as much as I believe it now, because obviously [the Huskies] are more talented than us. You probably saw four or five guys on their team that are going to the NBA. But that doesn't matter when you're on the floor."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company