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Sweet on Patriots

Times Staff Writer

Tied to telephone poles on Chain Bridge Road in the heart of Fairfax, right in front of the Fuddrucker’s and blowing in the cool breeze, was a sign painted in George Mason green and gold. “Congratulations George Mason on the Sweet 16. Go Patriots.”

“Did you see the sign?” asked senior guard Lamar Butler. “Right in downtown. Now people will know who we are.”

It has been a maelstrom of jump shots and police escorts for the 11th-seeded Patriots since they upset third-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in a second-round NCAA tournament game in Dayton, Ohio.

There was a midnight pep rally Sunday and a 9 a.m. class Monday where the professor coyly asked Butler and teammate Tony Skinn, “So, what did you do this weekend?”

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What did they do? They beat last season’s Final Four semifinalist Michigan State on Friday and last season’s national champion North Carolina on Sunday. Took down programs that proudly own national championships and national reputations, which means hardly ever sweating out Selection Sunday.

The Patriots had sweated their NCAA bid. Skinn had suffered a monumental lapse of good sense and good judgment during a Colonial Athletic Assn. tournament semifinal game and thrown a punch to the groin of a Hofstra player. The move had been captured by television cameras and replayed endlessly.

Coach Jim Larranaga suspended Skinn for the next game, whether that was in the NCAA tournament or NIT. And until George Mason’s name was put on the selection board as a No. 11-seeded team set to meet No. 6-seeded Michigan State in the Washington Regional, Skinn said he had sweated off 10 pounds of fear.

“It would have been my fault if we hadn’t gone,” he said.

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Yet, a week later, Skinn walks around the leafy campus on the outskirts of this historically quaint and upscale Washington bedroom community and accepts bear hugs from strangers, kisses from girls he wishes he knew and applause from the patrons at the McDonald’s up the street.

On Sunday night, the Patriots flew home to Dulles Airport and were received by a four-car police escort.

“Sirens and everything,” Butler said. “Usually, the drive takes half an hour at least. With the escort it was about 10 minutes.”

Waiting for the team at the Patriot Center, its home court, were at least 600 people, according to university President Alan Merten. Or 800, according to Athletic Director Tom O’Connor. Or 2,000, according to Larranaga. Anyway, there were a lot of people.

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This is why the NCAA tournament is so special.

A group of kids who had no reason to expect they would be one of the final 16 teams in the tournament walked to class propelled by the funny adrenaline that comes from two hours of sleep and sudden national renown. Not that the players at Duke or UCLA or Connecticut or Villanova are any less excited. But at those places there are realistic expectations that the Sweet 16 will happen again and again. It has never happened here before. Again? No one will expect that.

Merten, a graduate of Wisconsin and veteran of jobs at Michigan and Florida, where major athletic successes are normal, said he was struck by something Monday morning.

“The campus was noisy,” Merten said.

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Noisy because groups of students would stop and spontaneously start singing the school song. Noisy because groups of professors would be gathered to discuss their feelings when the Patriots were trailing North Carolina, 16-2. Noisy because the student union was filled with students on cellphones and the conversations all seemed to start: “Can you get tickets?”

It is both incredible luck and a bit of a curse that the Patriots will be playing Friday night less than 20 miles from campus at the Verizon Center in Washington against No. 7-seeded Wichita State. It is practically a home game against another mid-major team George Mason beat last month in Wichita, Kan. In other words, the Patriots can move to the Elite Eight by beating a team it knows it can beat in front of fans who want them to win.

And they will be playing at the place Georgetown calls home.

George Mason is a relatively new university, founded in 1972 as part of the University of Virginia system. Its original goal was to provide education in subjects of importance to the growing community of government workers in Northern Virginia. It has well-regarded schools of public policy and informational technology. It was mainly a commuter school until about 15 years ago.

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But now George Mason is the largest university in the state. It has 29,000 students. It has two Nobel Prize winners in its economics department. It has a groundbreaking department of microbiology.

And it is always confused with some other nearby university. Georgetown. George Washington. James Madison.

“All those guys are more famous than our guy,” said George Mason junior James Mix of Stafford, Va. Mix was sitting at a table in the student union with fellow juniors Jeff Smith of Harrisonburg, Va., Andrew Johnson of Falls Church, Va., and Mario Biviano of Sicily, Italy. They were discussing ticket options (not good) and the whole name-recognition thing.

“Nobody knows who George Mason is,” Mix said. “Everybody knows who George Washington is. Even James Madison.”

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In fact, a pop quiz was quickly administered to Skinn and Butler. Who is George Mason?

“Didn’t he sign the Constitution?” Butler said. “And he was president, right?”

Skinn rolled his eyes. “He was not president,” Skinn said. But who is he? “I think he had something to do with the Constitution,” Skinn said. “I should know more.”

Mason wrote the Virginia Constitution and drew up the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He also helped write the U.S. Constitution but when the founding fathers refused to include a Bill of Rights or outlaw slavery, Mason refused to sign it.

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Merten and his wife, Sally, attend every home men’s and women’s basketball game, so they can discuss the pick-and-roll as well as George Mason’s background.

Larranaga was hired nine years ago to replace Paul Westhead. Westhead had arrived at George Mason with grand plans to make the Patriots an East Coast version of Loyola Marymount. In his first season, George Mason set a game scoring record with 129 points and the next season scored 148 points in a game.

But in Westhead’s four seasons, the Patriots never had a winning record and he was fired.

The disorganized program was quickly brought to heel by Larranaga. He has taken the Patriots to three NCAA tournaments.

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Monday his voice was everywhere. Turn on the car radio, Larranaga was on former Georgetown coach John Thompson’s radio show. Turn on television in the morning, Larranaga was on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza.” Late afternoon? Larranaga was on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”

In 2001, Larranaga had taken George Mason to the NCAA tournament and lost to Maryland, 83-80, in the first round.

“I lay in bed that night wondering how things would be different if we had won that game,” Larranaga said. “Now I know.”


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