John Feinstein: Despite George Mason's Loss, the Future Remains Bright in Fairfax

George Mason's Andre Cornelius, left, loses the ball on a drive to the basket against VCU's Ed Nixon.
George Mason's Andre Cornelius, left, loses the ball on a drive to the basket against VCU's Ed Nixon. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By John Feinstein
Tuesday, March 10, 2009


In a very real sense, Jim Larranaga had seen this night coming for a long time. He had known since October that this George Mason season wasn't going to be as smooth a ride as some recent winters have been.

"We're going to be very good at times and very bad at times," he said not long after practice began. "And sometimes, it's going to be on the same night."

Monday night in the Richmond Coliseum, with the Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship and an NCAA bid on the line, the bad Patriots showed up at the worst possible time. To be fair, if the good Patriots had shown up, they might not have had enough to beat Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams, led by the magical Eric Maynor and sophomore center Larry Sanders, weren't going to settle for the NIT for a second straight year.

VCU led 18-9 after 10 minutes, 30-19 at halftime and pushed the margin to 23 before cruising to a 71-50 victory for their third CAA title in six years. Maynor did just about everything you could ask a guard to do. He hit floaters in the lane and three-point shots. He broke down the defense on the break and in the half court. He made steals, and he consistently found shooters -- often dishing to Sanders, who had 18 points and 20 rebounds.

"Maynor on the break is like a magician," Larranaga said, shaking his head. "He goes one way; the defense goes the other."

More to the point, he waves his magic wand -- which comes in the form of a basketball -- and the defense disappears.

"We knew what we had to do against him; it isn't like we haven't played them before," said Dre Smith, the only Patriot to hit more than two field goals all night. John Vaughan "is a good defender, but we knew we had to give him help. A lot of times, the first help got there, but the second and third didn't."

It might have taken fourth, fifth and sixth help to control Maynor; he's that good. VCU is going to be a very tough out for some fourth or fifth seed next week.

That, however, is not Larranaga's concern. His Patriots, who won 22 games and reached a third straight championship game after being picked fourth in the conference preseason, will play in the NIT. The Patriots might even host a game (how about sending the Hoyas to Fairfax?) and could be dangerous if the disappointment of Monday night doesn't defeat them.

Getting to this game and finishing second in the regular season was an accomplishment for this team. It never found any kind of consistent offensive rhythm all season. Monday was the 12th time in 32 games the Patriots failed to score more than 61 points; remarkably, they won nine of those games.

Defense was rarely a problem, but the upperclassmen were spotty at the offensive end. Smith, who scored most of his 23 points Monday after the outcome had been decided, missed 31 consecutive three-point attempts during one stretch this season. Darryl Monroe and Vaughan had moments, but couldn't sustain them. Monroe and junior Louis Birdsong were so intimidated by Sanders in the championship game that they were a combined 1 for 9 from the field and scored six points. Vaughan, 1 for 7 in the semifinals against Towson, was 2 for 5 and had five points.

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