|Back in tournament, George Mason overcomes hurdles as mid-major|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 18 March 2008 23:26|
On Monday, the Patriot Center was occupied by a heavy metal concert, so the Patriots practiced at a small gym down the road. Of course, at 5 p.m., they had to clear the court for the university's men's volleyball team.
On his way out, coach Jim Larranaga congratulated the volleyballers for their recent victory over top-ranked Penn State. No sense getting bitter about things.
``We definitely deal with more,'' Larranaga said. ``We're playing a lot more road games. We have a lot more travel. ... It takes a special kind of student-athlete'' to be successful at a mid-major program.
George Mason returns to the tournament this year with two of the same starters from its Final Four appearance in 2006 - seniors Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell.
While Patriots' fans now have high expectations, Larranaga said that on a national level the team must again prove itself to skeptics.
``They think it was a fluke,'' Larranaga said. ``What most observers and fans don't understand is that the difference between the high-level and mid-major levels is really referring to programs that have more money.''
In 2006, the NCAA selection committee was criticized after George Mason received an at-large bid and an 11th seed. Some said power conference schools like Michigan and Maryland were more deserving, while others said Hofstra, which beat George Mason twice, should have received the bid.
This year, the Patriots played their way in by winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Though Larranaga encourages his team to avoid the chatter, players say they've heard the criticism that automatic qualifiers are stealing bids from more deserving teams.
``Coach L ... tells us not to listen, but it's kind of hard not to listen,'' said junior John Vaughan, who had a medical redshirt two seasons ago. ``A lot of the analysts try to pound on the mid-majors.''
Vaughan said the Patriots are going into the tournament not with a chip on their shoulders, ``but a feeling of confidence. We know we play with anybody we face.''
Larranaga and the players have some ambivalence about constant references to the 2006 team. They believe their experience will be a benefit this year, and they regard it as the ultimate compliment when people ask, ``Who will be this year's George Mason?''
But most of the players from that team are gone, and this year's team wants to guard against living in the past.
``We want to talk about now,'' Thomas said. ``We're a different team now. The Final Four, that was two teams ago.''
Thomas said he believes the Patriots are still flying under the radar as they approach their first-round game Thursday against fifth-seeded Notre Dame.
``People haven't seen us play on TV. They don't know what to expect from us,'' he said. ``We have to keep proving ourselves over and over again until we are on ESPN twice a week.''
Said Larranaga: ``That (Final Four) run was very, very special and I don't think anyone can duplicate it, because even they do, it's the second time'' it's been accomplished.
While he believes the experience the Patriots gained in 2006 will be helpful, he was careful not to overstate its importance.
``Having experience is good. But we didn't have it two years ago and we were able to play well,'' Larranaga said.