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 FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) -Jim Larranaga should have been able to relax a little bit this offseason.
The hype of over George Mason's Final Four appearance in April 2006 had kept him going nonstop for nearly a year, so the coach could have used the break. All five of his starters were set to return, so there was going to be continuity in the program. This was the year that the Patriots were going to reload and make some noise again.
So much for best-laid plans.
``The summer,'' Larranaga said, ``was super-intense.''
Sure enough, the very next day, Larranaga learned that starting power forward Darryl Monroe needed toe surgery.
So, as the Patriots prepare to host Vermont in Friday's season opener, Larranaga's usual surefire positive sales pitch has a slightly downbeat tone.
``We do have a veteran group,'' Larranaga said. ``But we do have some things there that have complicated things far beyond what I would have hoped for.''
Despite the setbacks, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth are expected to be the class of the Colonial Athletic Association. They were picked to finish 1-2 in the conference's preseason poll.
The Patriots nearly upset the Rams in last season's conference tournament final, a strong ending to an inconsistent campaign in which Larranaga's team had more expectations then it could possibly handle. Not only was every opponent motivated by a chance to knock off a Final Four team, but George Mason also had to replace three starters.
This season's team is led by the two starters who remain from the magical NCAA run, center Will Thomas and guard Folarin Campbell. Larranaga said he might use a lineup consisting of four guards until Monroe returns, possibly next month.
``When the games count, I'm going to try to put the guys with the most experience out there,'' he said.
Larranaga has the first recruiting fruits of the Final Four run, four freshmen who were no doubt influenced by the Patriots' heightened national profile. The group includes Isaiah Tate, the coach's first recruit from prestigious DeMatha High School.
A master of motivational ploys, Larranaga said his theme for this season's team is FOCUS, an acronym for friendship, organization, consistency, unity and sacrifice.
Larranaga was asked how long it took for his players to memorize those words.
``They're on the back of their practice T-shirts,'' he said.
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