Mason Is Back on Road In Search of New Kicks

"We want to think about the now," said Will Thomas, one of two starters and four players left from George Mason's 2006 Final Four team. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shortly after George Mason lost a game last month, Coach Jim Larranaga decided his sneakers had become unlucky. "I said, 'The [heck] with it, these shoes are no good,' " Larranaga said.

He rummaged through his closet for a new set and found an unworn pair of Nikes still in the box, all white save for the small emblem stitched near the heel: an Interstate 4 road sign with "Indianapolis 2006" written above it in script.

"That's the road to the Final Four," Larranaga said. "I've been holding on to these for a while."

Nike gave Larranaga the custom kicks two years ago, after George Mason stunned Connecticut, went to the Final Four and became a national darling. The 12th-seeded Patriots will return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since that run tomorrow, when they play Notre Dame in Denver at approximately 9:50 p.m. Larranaga wore the sneakers Monday at practice, George Mason's first step in its effort to become this year's George Mason.

Two starters remain from the Final Four team: forward Will Thomas and point guard Folarin Campbell. Just two others players, Jordan Carter and Chris Fleming, are still on the team. Those veterans have been sending a uniform message to younger players: Have fun. Starting Thursday, the Patriots will try to rely on their tournament experience while focusing only on their game, not the memories created two seasons ago.

"We want to think about the now," said Thomas, a senior. "That was a different team. That happened two years ago. We'll take some of the stuff from that year. But we can't take that team from that year."

Since Mason's last tournament run, season ticket sales doubled and admission inquiries rose 350 percent, according to a study by Robert Baker, director of GMU's Center for Sport Management. But the experience and attention from their recent Final Four has not diminished the obstacles and stigmas mid-major teams confront.

On Monday, an ear-splitting concert tour called "Taste of Chaos" occupied the Patriot Center, so the Patriots practiced in the campus Physical Education Building, which is currently undergoing renovations. Stacks of cinder blocks and mounds of dirt surrounded it. Plastic sheets covered the front entrance. Paint had been stripped from three-quarters of the wall, revealing a strange coat of red paint. The only restroom was a row of three port-a-potties outside. And they could only use that court for 1 hour 10 minutes -- the men's volleyball team needed it at 5 p.m.

"We got to respect everybody," Campbell said. "Our volleyball team is a good team."

Despite increased interest and support, the Patriots have not seen the perception of programs such as theirs improve at the same rate. Conference opponent Virginia Commonwealth finished 24-7 and won the regular season Colonial Athletic Association title, but it was largely left out of the debate over which teams should make the at-large tournament field.

"They think it's a fluke," Larranaga said. "I think what most observers, fans, people who follow March Madness really don't understand is that the different levels are really referring to the programs that have more money. They're called a high major because they have the financial resources to buy guarantee games. They start out their season with seven or eight wins, all at home, and all basically bought and paid for.

"Scheduling has become progressively more difficult. Everybody in the CAA has the problem. They tell us, 'Hey, you didn't schedule up enough.' Yeah, well, try to find somebody who wants to play you in a home-and-home."

The perceived slights have helped George Mason push aside the temptation to rest on its accomplishments from two years ago, but it has he same confidence it carried into the 2006 tournament. Larranaga points out this team has already achieved something the 2006 squad did not: The Patriots won the CAA tournament for the first time since 2001.

"I think we can take this as far, if not further, than the team two years ago," sophomore Louis Birdsong said.

The Patriots surround themselves with remnants from the 2006 run. Framed photographs of players cutting down nets and a Sports Illustrated cover hang on Larranaga's office wall. The actual net rests on a trophy in the corner. He uses the placard with his name on it from the 2006 Final Four news conference as a nameplate on his desk.

The Patriots left those mementos behind yesterday, both figuratively and literally, when their plane left for Denver. They are concentrating not on what they did two years ago, but how they did it.

"To go that far, it gives me confidence I can do it again," Campbell said. "I believe it. When you've got that belief, it can take you far."

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