-- George Mason tipped off its basketball season Thursday night before a few dozen hardy fans in a nearly empty Lawrence Joel Coliseum. A pregame promo for a Brad Paisley concert boomed through the deserted building, and once the game started, George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga's every word echoed across the court.
The Patriots' second game figures to have a slightly different vibe. Thursday night's impressive 79-56 win over UC Irvine set up a meeting with No. 18 Wake Forest Friday night. The winner will head to Madison Square Garden next week for a 2K Sports College Hoops Classic semifinal against Florida.
Wake Forest has won 17 straight in this building after its 78-64 victory against Mississippi Valley State on Thursday night. The Demon Deacons have a pair of preseason all-American candidates in Eric Williams and Justin Gray. And they should offer exactly what Larranaga wanted out of this trip: a national-caliber opponent and a booster shot of early-season RPI assistance.
But there was no talk of such possibilities Thursday night, and the Patriots boarded their team bus before the second game even began.
"I'm just going to enjoy this win, and see what happens [Friday] when I wake up," said senior forward Jai Lewis, who scored a game-high 18 points.
George Mason entered this same 16-team tournament a year ago, beating Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne by 18 in the first round before losing to host Memphis by 17. That season ended with George Mason bowing out of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in the quarterfinal round and failing to make either the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
A similar finish this year would be more distressing. Every significant contributor from last season returns, save for injured guard John Vaughan. And with an experienced senior trio of Lewis, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn, the Patriots were picked to finish third in the CAA.
To surpass that prediction, they will likely need to find another star or two, and Thursday night offered great hope in that regard. Larranaga previously identified new starter Folarin Campbell as one candidate for a breakout season, and the 6-foot-4 sophomore from Silver Spring contributed one of the best games of his career against the Anteaters.
The two-time All-Met at Springbrook High, who will handle the ball more this season, had 12 points at halftime, more than half UC Irvine's total. He finished with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists.
"We know [opponents] are going to focus on Tony, Jai and Lamar," Campbell said. "I'm going to get my opportunities, and I've just got to make sure I take advantage of that."
Larranaga has also repeatedly said his team must play better defensively than it did a year ago, and the results there were also promising, albeit against an overmatched squad missing one of its best rebounders because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Still, the Patriots had a 42-31 rebounding advantage. They forced 15 turnovers, and held UC Irvine to 32 percent shooting from the field.
"For a first game performance, very, very pleased," Larranaga said. "Overall, the effort was there."
The seniors, meantime, did their typical damage. Skinn, who had played mostly point guard in the past, scored 15 points from a wing position. After George Mason led by 12 at halftime, Lewis had eight points and four rebounds in the first five minutes of the second half, and his team pulled away.
As the game became less competitive, any crowd noise was mostly provided by a small George Mason contingent and six howling Wake Forest students, who had taken it upon themselves to support the Big West representatives.
"Anteaters, man," one said by way of explanation.
"You've got to root for someone," said another.
Friday night's crowd, of course, will have considerably more vigor. But the Patriots were in no mood to talk about Friday.
"One of the things you have to do is enjoy the moment," Larranaga said. "So I would like for our players and our coaches not to think about [Friday] until it's time to think about [Friday]. Right now, it's time to think about the win."
* WAKE FOREST 78, MISS. VALLEY ST. 64: Eric Williams had 22 points and nine rebounds to lead the No. 18 Demon Deacons.
Trent Strickland added 16 points and a career-best 12 rebounds for Wake Forest, which has won 12 straight season openers. The Demon Deacons haven't lost a home opener in 17 years.
Richard Cannon scored 19 points for the Delta Devils, who gave the Demon Deacons fits much of the game before Wake Forest pulled away in the final minutes.
The 6-foot-9, 280-pound Williams led the way for Wake Forest, going 10 for 12 from the field and throwing down several dunks against the undersized Delta Devils. He went 9 for 10 in the second half, helping Wake Forest shoot 72 percent after the break.
The Demon Deacons shot 66 percent for the game and had a 36-26 edge on the boards, but they committed 19 turnovers.