Cast in light and shadow high above sections 108 and 109 at Patriot Center, the Final Four banner watches over the George Mason men’s basketball program like a hovering parent.
It offers a reminder of an unfathomable feat almost nine years ago, when the Patriots became the first in a rush of midsize programs to crash a postseason party reserved for the sport’s elite.
Before Butler, Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth, there was a giant-killer called George Mason. But while the others have maintained a national presence, the Patriots have fallen back into the cluttered well of dreamers.
In eight seasons since the Final Four appearance, George Mason has won one NCAA tournament game, in 2011. And with a 6-11 record entering Saturday night’s game against visiting Davidson, the Patriots are on a path to consecutive losing seasons for the first time in 17 years.
The team has sputtered since leaving the lesser Colonial Athletic Association in 2013, dropping 16 of 21 Atlantic 10 games. Its lone visit to a postseason tournament under fourth-year Coach Paul Hewitt was the third-tier College Basketball Invitational two years ago.
Attendance has declined to pre-Final Four years, an optic amplified by a 10,000-seat arena too large for the program’s needs even in the best of times.
“We have work to do, a lot of work to do,” said Brad Edwards, the former Washington Redskins defensive back in his first academic year as George Mason’s athletic director after two years at Jacksonville University. “We need to catch up on many things.”
So what happened to the program that inspired underdogs in college basketball and beyond?
They were not going to return to the Final Four anytime soon, but that was okay with everyone involved because “the Final Four was a magical situation,” said Tom O’Connor, who retired last summer after 20 years as George Mason’s athletic director. “And that magic doesn’t happen every day.”
Over the next five seasons, Larranaga oversaw an average of 21 victories and a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. In 2011, the Patriots upset Villanova in the NCAA tournament on Luke Hancock’s late three-pointer. By spring, however, Larranaga and his assistants had left for Miami and Hancock was off to Louisville, where he was the most outstanding player during a Final Four celebration two years later.
Enter Hewitt, who had guided Georgia Tech to the 2004 national championship game. The Patriots enjoyed a 24-win season in his first campaign and won 22 the following year but were just 10-8 in the CAA. Last season’s move to the Atlantic 10 brought heavier competition, heavy defeats and an 11-20 record.
The Patriots opened this season by losing to Cornell, which had been picked last in the Ivy League. After a brief resurgence, George Mason has dropped four in a row and five of six.
“We have 13 games left, seven at home, so by no means am I looking at it like, ‘Boy, this is a lost year,’ ” said Hewitt, whose five-year contract paying about $700,000 annually expires next year. “It can change quickly.”
While the Patriots seek to turn their fortunes, the other Final Four surprises have remained on high ground.
Since its 2011 national semifinal appearance, VCU has won between 26 and 29 games and gone to three straight NCAA tournaments under the same coach, Shaka Smart. This season, the Rams boasted a 15-3 overall record and 5-0 mark in the Atlantic 10 entering Friday night’s game at Saint Louis.
“They kept going back to the tournament,” Edwards said, “and that is what we have to do.”
Wichita State is 52-3 since advancing to the 2013 Final Four . And Butler followed its 2010 joyride with another visit to the national championship game the following year. The Bulldogs stumbled last season (14-17) but appear back on track this winter (14-6).
George Mason’s dip and heightened competition in the Atlantic 10 have prompted Edwards to begin outlining plans to upgrade the program.
The university has formed a committee to explore major renovations to Patriot Center (opened in 1985) or constructing a new on-campus arena. Edwards and other athletic department officials have toured facilities such as the University of Richmond’s Robins Center, which reopened last year with fewer seats and upgraded infrastructure and amenities.
Edwards is also looking to increase the number of charter flights and improve the team facilities and support system.
“We recognize that athletics, principally basketball for us, is a marketing opportunity for the institution, and we want to maximize that,” he said. “And we know the competition is not taking their foot off the gas. Now it’s that point where the transition into the Atlantic 10 is underway and we have to take the next step.”
He has weighed George Mason’s athletic budget to that of other universities without football, such as VCU and Wichita State. The Patriots are well behind, according to the Knight Commission, the reform panel that operates a database of athletic and academic spending.
The university did apply a chunk of the Final Four earnings to the program, but in the Atlantic 10, George Mason is eighth or ninth in spending among 14 teams, Edwards estimated.
The fundraising mission is daunting. George Mason is a young university without the breadth of potential donors. It is also situated in a major sports market with numerous pro and college teams fighting over sponsorship dollars and ticket buyers. Wichita State and VCU don’t have such issues.
Among the possible revenue-generators: for the first time, selling the naming rights to Patriot Center.
“We should be comparable if not better” to programs of similar makeup, Edwards said. “With this university, we have a good foundation, and now we’re in the right conference. It’s on us now to put those pieces in place.”
Longtime backers are watching.
“Disappointed? Sure. But we haven’t lost faith,” said Bud Morrissette, who serves on the Patriot Club advisory board. The family company, Interstate Moving, has sponsored the basketball program for years.
“In D.C., we are an impatient group. When you have that success of 2006, you want a taste of it again or something close to it.”
George Mason’s on-court shortcomings have impacted attendance. Through eight home dates, the team is averaging 3,513 — 29 percent less than last season’s final figure. In fairness, crowd sizes traditionally increase as the conference schedule heats up, and regional rivals VCU, Richmond and George Washington have yet to visit Fairfax.
As for the team’s makeup, Hewitt’s recent recruits seem better suited for the rigors of the Atlantic 10 than his older, CAA-caliber players. Shevon Thompson, a junior transfer, leads the conference in rebounding. Sophomores Jalen Jenkins and Marquise Moore are starters, freshman Isaiah Jackson has cracked the lineup and freshman Trey Porter is earning substantial time.
“We have good enough players,” Hewitt said. “We haven’t capitalized on some situations we have created for ourselves, and offensively we’ve been woefully inconsistent.”
Whether Hewitt will be around next season is unclear. His pact runs through next season, but a third-year president, Angel Cabrera, and new athletic director, combined with the likelihood of another losing season, raises the specter of change.
As he does with all coaches, Edwards said he will evaluate Hewitt’s performance at the end of the season.
“I look at where they are in their tenure, how they are doing in the conference, what we see on the court, what we see in the classroom and in the community,” he said. “Certainly wins and losses are important at a place like George Mason, and we have to decide whether we are heading in the right direction.”