Although William and Mary swept through a nine-game ECAC South schedule without defeat, neither Navy Coach Paul Evans nor George Mason Coach Joe Harrington will concede the conference tournament to the Indians.
"William and Mary is very tough and a good shooting team," Evans said. "But they've been playing great ball for the last eight weeks and nobody stays at top form forever. I'll be surprised if William and Mary hangs on with that intensity much longer."
"Within a week we could be in the NCAA playoffs," Harrington said. "I don't think that's unrealistic. We were just a few points from winning four more league games--we lost our first game to William and Mary by one--and right now, with our balanced effort, I think we're playing the best we've played all year.
"If I were one of the other coaches, I wouldn't want to play George Mason now, with all we've got going for us."
The Patriots (15-11, 3-6) open the six-team tournament at Richmond's Robins Center tonight at 7 against East Carolina (15-12, 3-7), a team they defeated twice, each time by one point, this season.
Third-seeded Navy (17-10, 3-3) follows at 9 against Richmond, whose last-place record (12-15, 2-7) is balanced by the home-court advantage.
The winner of the George Mason-East Carolina contest faces William and Mary (19-7) Friday at 7, followed by James Madison (17-10, 6-3) against the Navy-Richmond survivor. A new champion will be decided in Saturday's 7:30 final, since 1982 winner Old Dominion has moved to the Sun Belt Conference.
George Mason sophomore Carlos Yates and East Carolina freshman Johnny Edwards are the top scorers in the league, with Yates averaging 27.0 points and Edwards 18.8.
Asked about the problem of trying to beat the Pirates a third time after surviving two close ones, Yates said, "There's nothing to that bit. If you can do it once, you can do it again.
"We're a young team and we're maturing. We've lost a lot of close games on the road and we've had a lot of close calls go against us. Playing on a neutral floor, I think it will be different, particularly with William and Mary."
Navy freshman Vernon Butler, the league's top rebounder with a 10.2 average, must carry a heavy load against the physical Spiders, since a bruised left knee will limit 6-10 Cliff Maurer to spot duty.
"I think our big problem is that it's very difficult for any team playing three nights in a row," Evans said. "As for Richmond, we got that pairing by beating Mason Saturday, and you might say we can't win by winning. But our kids have confidence against Richmond.
"Last year we won down there by 10 and we beat them at home in January (57-55), playing not very well. If we play our game, we should be all right."
Evans is bothered by the lack of recognition given to the ECAC South.
"People don't know how good our league is," he said. "We rank eighth in beating teams out of the conference and last year we ranked in the top 10 leagues in strength of schedule."