By Mike Wise
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 12:39 AM
Don't look now but the nation's longest winning streak in Division I men's basketball belongs to George Mason, which is led by the most precious commodity in all of college hoops: the senior who stayed, the teenager who made a verbal commitment and, four years later, actually meant it.
Well, sort of.
That kid who stayed? Turns out he almost left.
What with a pulsating string of blowouts, 12 straight victories and an almost-certain NCAA tournament berth in store, it's safe to come clean.
"I thought about it," says Cam Long.
Long, the Patriots' do-a-little-of-everything catalyst, was nearly gone in late November 2008, three games into his sophomore year.
Feeling some of the same frustration that made Larry Drew II leave North Carolina this month and Jeremiah Rivers leave Georgetown two seasons ago, Long almost pulled a geographic - the same often-distorted thinking that afflicts so many struggling young players' minds, at big and small colleges alike, after they starred in high school:
Coach don't know what I'm about; I'm going elsewhere.
"I definitely had my, 'I gotta get up outta here' moment," Long said as he sat in the front row of Patriot Center on the school's Fairfax campus before practice Thursday afternoon.
"I actually looked up some schools on the Internet, found some ones that didn't have too many guards. It was only momentary, but in my mind, I was gone. It was right before a game against East Carolina."
Looking back, Nov. 22, 2008, was the fork-in-the-road moment - not just for the career of the most important player Jim Larranaga recruited since that magical Final Four run five years ago but also for the squad that currently stands at 22-5.
"I remember two conversations from back then," Larranaga said. "One was with me, and another was with [assistant coach] Eric Konkol. One of the things Cam said to me was, 'I don't think you have confidence in me.' I think I said, 'Wait a minute. You're in the starting lineup. You're playing 30 minutes a game. There is no better indicator of my confidence in you than that.' We had had a very tough loss the night before and he was upset. After he met with Eric that night, he came out the next game against East Carolina and had a tremendous game. From then on, Cam has been great."
The Patriots are at Northern Iowa on Saturday night in ESPN's BracketBusters event, but that label better applied to the ACC matchup between Maryland and Virginia Tech the other night. George Mason is all but in, their strength of schedule and recent onslaught of everybody good and bad in their league looks very formidable in any selection committee's eyes.
And much it has to do with Long, the 6-foot-4 senior with the cocksure gait of a player at his peak, whom NBA scouts are watching to see whether he has the goods for the next level.
"I can see myself there; it's all about the right opportunity," he said.
Said Larranaga: "The NBA should definitely give him a look because of what he brings for a player of his size and skill. He can play the one or the two and gives you so many options to choose from with his skill level."
Long clasped his hands in front of him and rested them on his knees, his body art in plain view. On the outside of his left bicep is a R.I.P. tattoo in honor of his late cousin James McGriff, who in 1998 was swept away in an undertow in Long's home town of Palm Bay, Fla., the year before McGriff was to attend Florida on a football scholarship. Steve Spurrier actually spoke at his funeral. "I always looked up to him as a kid; he meant so much to me," Long said of his cousin.
On each of his wrists are his two brothers' names, Torrey and Rendell, who is 16 years older than Cam and whom Cam's mother sent him to live with when he was a knucklehead kid in Florida.
Finally, on his inner right forearm, in large cursive letters, are the words, "Big Dawg." Sticking around this long, of course - essentially becoming the Kyle Singler of the CAA - has now made him Mason's Big Dawg.
"I'm definitely glad I stayed," Long said. "I can't imagine being with a group of guys like this - the chemistry, the way we just know each other. You see them making faces at me while we talk? We have a lot of fun."
Asked why he didn't transfer two years ago and become another cliche, Long said, "I learned to communicate with my coaches. I found out that all the things I wanted were all the things the coaches wanted - to score more, to not be so robotic and have more freedom.
"I was so worried about being taken out every time I made a mistake. If I'm getting yanked for little mistakes, I just felt, 'Why am I here?'
"Things changed when I spoke to the coaches, and the upperclassmen told me, 'You gotta be the one to run the show.' I just realized that I had to be more about trying to fit the system instead of making the system fit me."
This is a great time of year, a time when we get to know the back stories of kids from schools such as George Mason. Largely neglected since 2006, they get to become our disposable heroes again for a few weeks in March.
Since all hell broke loose five years ago, one of the NCAA tournament's endearing terms is anointing any potentially successful mid-major "this year's George Mason."
The Patriots are closing in on taking their identity back. Led by a four-year player, who started and starred against East Carolina that night in November 2008, who smartly decided he needed to stay in Fairfax.
Cam Long became the centerpiece of a balanced team, a confident, irreplaceable guard and that rare commodity in big-time college basketball, the senior who stayed.