Archive for Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ah, the spotlight

Larranaga, Patriots relishing sudden fame

March 28, 2006

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— The coach of perhaps the most improbable Final Four team in NCAA history was running on pure adrenaline. George Mason's Jim Larranaga had slept for only two hours, and his extremely hoarse voice didn't deter him from what essentially became a day of nonstop talking.

His idea of lunch was to take four reporters out for hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant, where well-wishers kept stopping at the table to offer congratulations. And, of course, his cell phone wasn't quiet, either.

"Hey, Stick, how are you?" Larranaga's voice boomed as he took a call.

"Stick" is Ralph Sampson, who played at Virginia when Larranaga was an assistant coach there. Sampson and Larranaga were on the wrong side of the greatest upset in college basketball history, when NAIA Chaminade upset the No. 1 Cavaliers in 1982.

Now the tables have been turned. Larranaga's Patriots have put together the greatest run of upsets the NCAA Tournament ever has seen. The 11th seed has defeated half of last year's Final Four and the two previous national champions, culminating with Sunday's 86-84 overtime stunner over Connecticut.

"Thank you, Ralph," Larranaga said. "You know how hard it is to get there. To have this team do it, beating Michigan State, Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut is just unreal."

Unreal, yes, but it would have never happened if the NCAA Tournament selection committee had not ventured into a brave new world three weeks ago. Chairman Craig Littlepage and the panel decided to invite an at-large team from the Colonial Athletic Association.

It had only happened once before, and that was when David Robinson was at Navy in 1986.

At least that's how the outside world saw it. Littlepage said Monday that the significance of picking a second CAA team "didn't come up at all" when the Patriots were being discussed.

Instead, there was more of a sense of whether the committee should take George Mason or Hofstra, another CAA team that had beaten the Patriots twice in 11 days.

"Certainly Hofstra had a very good year and has an excellent team," Littlepage said. "But I did feel as though if there were a tipping point, it was that this was the team that was tied for the league championship with North Carolina-Wilmington."

Lamar Butler, top, of the George Mason Patriots basketball team talks to the media at the Patriot Center, Monday, March 27, 2005 in Fairfax, Va. George Mason advanced to play in the NCAA Final Four with their win against Connecticut yesterday.

Lamar Butler, top, of the George Mason Patriots basketball team talks to the media at the Patriot Center, Monday, March 27, 2005 in Fairfax, Va. George Mason advanced to play in the NCAA Final Four with their win against Connecticut yesterday.

Littlepage also cited George Mason's upgraded nonconference schedule. The Patriots had put themselves in such good position that athletic director Tom O'Conner, who also is on the selection committee, professed no feeling of suspense when he made the mandatory exit from the room while his team was being discussed.

"As I was walking out of the room, I grabbed the bottle of water, I got the newspaper and I went into the lounge," O'Conner said. "I felt relaxed and very comfortable."

O'Conner said he didn't lobby fellow committee members for Mason.

"If I had to lobby for our team," he said, "then what I would have been saying was that our team wasn't good enough."

George Mason's selection was criticized by many, but no one did so in a more public forum than CBS commentators Billy Packer and Jim Nantz. Packer and Nantz have since recanted, but that didn't stop Patriots fans from derisively chanting "Bill-y Pack-er" after the victory over UConn.

Guard Tony Skinn kept it up Monday. He's a communications major, but when told he might get the chance to meet big-time broadcaster Nantz this weekend, Skinn said with a smile: "I don't want to sit next to that guy."

Committee members aren't about to say they voted for a team for sentimental reasons, but it would have been hard to fault them for giving Larranaga a break. He toiled for 11 seasons at Bowling Green and has been at George Mason for nine. He's the winningest coach in CAA history, which some might compare to leading the minor leagues in home runs.

At age 56, he goes to Indianapolis this weekend representing all the good low-major and mid-major coaches who never got a chance to experience basketball's biggest stage.

"Three weeks ago, I was one of those coaches," Larranaga said. "I worked at this craft for 35 years. I've been to two Final Fours, but not as a head coach. Twenty years I sat there, 'The Final Four,' hoping one day I might be able to bring a team there. Actually, I think I changed my goals - just give me an at-large berth, I would settle for that. You've got to understand how difficult it is, when you're not one of the top six or seven leagues, to get an at-large."

Throughout the day, the long-winded Larranaga told story after story in interview after interview, some coming from the 400 or so e-mails he started reading at 5 a.m. There was the 15-year-old boy whose mother had recently died: "Our team brought some joy into his life that he hadn't felt since his mom passed away," Larranaga said.

At various times he quoted Confucius and William Jennings Bryan, but Larranaga also makes good use of his own material. This is the coach who motivated his players by calling them "Kryptonite" in their green jerseys before the North Carolina game and said their conference's acronym stood for the "Connecticut Assassin Association" before the game against the Huskies.

"Nobody plays as well as they can play when they're all stressed out," said Larranaga, explaining an upbeat outlook that makes him at times look more like a mayoral candidate than a basketball coach.

Larranaga said he no longer was trying to "climb the coaching ladder." He's at Mason to stay, he says, but that begs the question: Is Mason in the big-time to stay?

"This exposure is tremendous," he said. "And we'll feel the effects in the immediate future, and I think far greater if we can continue to make the NCAA Tournament - and have kids believe that we're the Gonzaga of the East."

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