Rick Barnes likes to keep in touch. Even as his George Mason basketball team prepares to open its season tonight in the Big Apple preseason NIT tournament in New York against Seton Hall, Mason's first-year coach was talking about the firing of Ohio State football coach Earle Bruce.

"How do you think they handled that?" he asked of the university at which he was an assistant coach last season.

It was this sort of inquiry that put Barnes in a position to get the Patriots' job. After five seasons as an assistant to former George Mason coach Joe Harrington, Barnes decided it was time to start thinking about a head-coaching job.

So he left George Mason in 1985 and spent one season as an assistant to Wimp Sanderson at Alabama. Last season, he went to Ohio State as the top recruiter for Gary Williams.

"I stayed close to the {George Mason} program every day," Barnes said. "Every move I made, I went to {Athletic Director} Jack Kvancz. You don't want to be known as a guy who jumps around."

So, when Harrington left for Long Beach State, Barnes was ready. "He called me from California, told me he was taking the job," Barnes recalled. "I told my wife, and she said, 'Oh, my gosh.' She didn't want to move again, but she knew it was a situation I really wanted."

Barnes has already impressed his ethic of hard work upon the team. "We have a line that goes from the dressing room {at George Mason's Patriot Center} to the court, that we call the go-go line," he said. "When we cross the go-go line, it's time to play."

"There's no more pouting," said junior guard Earl Moore, who has been liberated by Barnes from Harrington's doghouse. "It was harder to get used to having all these practices. We'd have five in one day. We used to complain about it. But the players are getting used to it."

Barnes also has come down on senior Anthony (Amp) Davis and freshman Harold Westbrook. Neither will play against Seton Hall, he said, because of "academic policies" both have failed to meet.

"The thing the players have to do is give us the effort," Barnes said. "If they don't do that, they don't play."

Although Barnes would not comment further, it was learned that Davis' breach is considered more serious than Westbrook's. Westbrook traveled to Piscataway, N.J., with the team and Davis did not.

But Barnes will not use the loss of Davis and Westbrook as excuses. "One thing Gary taught me is all he needed was five guys and he would play," Barnes said. "He wasn't intimidated by anybody. I don't want to show well, I want to win. I hope I'm not one of those coaches at the end of the year who said, 'Well, we were 5-21, but we lost 15 games by {no more than} 10 points.' "

"He'll take me out to dinner, and have fun the whole night," said Moore, a former Cardozo High star. "When we get back in this gym, he'll turn on you in a minute."

"I think I know exactly what I want done," Barnes said. "I'm sure I'm going to be wrong sometimes, but I'll never be in doubt."

"I have no doubts that he'll be an exceptional head coach," said Harrington. "He was the first person I hired when I came here. That team will not only be in great shape, they'll execute."

"Rick did a great job for me," said Williams, a former coach at American. "He's an excellent recruiter, which will always be a strength of his. He's worked very hard to become a good basketball coach."

The head-coaching job puts Barnes in a strange position, having recruited many of George Mason's current squad, including all-Colonial Athletic Association forward Kenny Sanders, Davis, Moore and senior guard Darin Satterthwaite.

"As a head coach, you have to be a disciplinarian, the guy who really makes the players work hard," Williams said. "{But} those players that were there, they've matured. They're different players than when he was there."

One difficulty Barnes will face, Harrington said, is the great expectations people have for the George Mason program in the wake of the strides the Patriots have made since the school moved to Division I.

"If you don't beat them in recruiting consistently, then you turn around and ask coaches to beat those teams on the floor; it's unrealistic," Harrington said. "It's a double-edged sword. To beat those teams in March, you have to win the recruiting wars in August and the summer."

It's a situation Barnes is looking forward to challenging. "I do think people have some expectations," he said. "They see these players in this league, in this area, where success means everything. In this town, if you're not successful, they don't let you stay too long."

Not when you have your own go-go line. Staff writer John Feinstein contributed to this report.