Patriots Hold Five of a Kind

jai lewis - aberdeen high school - gmu
Patriot forward Jai Lewis, above, a massive center who had played football, basketball and lacrosse at Aberdeen High, won a state basketball title but, like many of his teammates, went unrecruited by power programs. (Matt Button - The Post via Aegis)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

There were two recruiting rules in Lamar Butler's mind. One came from his father.

"Go where you're loved," Lamar Butler Sr. told his son, over and over.

The other rule came from Rick Pitino.

"You get recognition," Pitino told Butler and a group of youth campers, "by winning."

Butler recounted these rules in late January, sitting on a folding chair at Patriot Center after a George Mason practice. In front of Butler, teammates Folarin Campbell and John Vaughan launched half-court bombs on the arena floor, the bouncing balls echoing as they caromed off the rim. Tony Skinn quietly rode a stationary bicycle.

Eight weeks and four NCAA tournament victories later, hundreds of reporters descended upon the same arena, with television lights and microphones and the same pressing questions. How did you wind up in Fairfax? Why didn't bigger schools recruit you? Why George Mason?

The answers aren't shocking or groundbreaking.

The Patriots' coaches didn't discover some loophole in recruiting rules or a secret formula for grading undiscovered talent. As they accumulated a stable of Maryland stars, local high school and AAU coaches took notice, but national pundits never predicted Final Four berths would follow.

Still, there were certain guidelines coaches used in putting together the first Final Four team from a non-major conference in a quarter-century. These themes brought together an overweight prep school center from Aberdeen, an unknown junior college guard from Takoma Park and three public school products from the Washington suburbs.

George Mason wanted players who had won: Of the Patriots' top seven players, six played in either state or league championship games during their final two years of high school. George Mason wanted players with local ties: Of the top seven players, six spent at least one year in a Maryland high school.

George Mason wanted players who wouldn't milk the process for more prestigious offers: All five starters orally committed in the summer or fall of their senior year. And George Mason wanted players who might be two inches too short for the Big East or 10 pounds too light for the ACC, but who were nevertheless skilled enough to play in the best conferences in the country.

"We always wanted to identify kids who could play anywhere," said former assistant Bill Courtney, who recruited all five starters. "We would tell them, 'We think you can play anywhere, but we want you to play for us.' "

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