George Mason has high hopes for young talent

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Jim Larranaga is sitting at his desk on the ground level of Patriot Center, primed for the start of his 13th season as the men's basketball coach at George Mason. For a moment, he breaks from a discussion about the promising freshman class, his hip-replacement surgery in April and the rigors of the Colonial Athletic Association to envision how spectators will react to his team's new, up-tempo style.

"Our fans are going to be taken on a roller-coaster ride," he says.

Suddenly, his eyes widen and voice surges with excitement.

"They're going to be saying: 'Whoa, this is terrible! Whoa, this is great! No, it's terrible! No, it's great! What's going on here? Wow!' All in a matter of 10 minutes."

For years, the Patriots' identity was forged by brawny forwards who served as the hub of the offense, by the mass of Jai Lewis and Darryl Monroe -- each 6 feet 7 and 275 pounds -- and by Will Thomas's muscular moves.

"You didn't think they were doing anything to you, and then you realized you had a bruise across your chest," Old Dominion Coach Blaine Taylor groaned. "It wasn't fun."

But after assessing the traits of his 11 freshmen and sophomores, Larranaga decided to choose pace over power, fury over force. The coach, in effect, adapted to his talent. He has implemented a scrambling defense that, if executed properly, will force turnovers in the back court, create easy baskets and generate additional possessions for a team with a variety of scoring options.

The Patriots won't utilize their new tactic on every possession or run the court with reckless abandon. They will still look to establish an inside game and manage the clock.

Nonetheless, "what I like about it is that it's so quick of a game-changer," said co-captain Cam Long, a junior guard and the team's leading returning scorer. "You can be at one point where it's tied, then up six and, next thing you know, we're up 15. With everything happening so fast, everyone has to be moving and going hard."

Larranaga hasn't played this way since arriving in Fairfax, when he took an athletic but novice squad from a nine-victory debut season to an NCAA tournament berth the following spring and another trip two years later.

In 1997-98, Larranaga's first season after arriving from Bowling Green, the freshmen struggled to adapt.

"We didn't get discouraged because we knew how young they were and knew they had the potential to get really good at it," he said. "The next year, all of a sudden, we became very, very good. They had done it for a year and they realized all the different things the scramble created."

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