FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) -George Mason coach Jim Larranaga always begins practice with a thought for the day. He didn't have to think hard to come with one on Tuesday.
``Yes, we can!'' he told his players as they gathered at midcourt at 11:30 a.m. at the Patriot Center, about a half-hour before Barack Obama was sworn in as president.
Then came laughter as the group singled out senior Chris Fleming, the team's sole Republican.
``Everyone else voted for Barack,'' Larranaga said, ``so they wanted him to have to say the words.''
Larranaga's inspirational ploys were well documented during George Mason's unexpected Final Four run in 2006, and apparently he hasn't lost his touch. This year's team is off to the best start in school history, with a 14-3 record that includes an immaculate 7-0 in the Colonial Athletic Conference.
ep repeating in Fairfax until everyone finally has the message: The Patriots plan to keep right on making noise on the national scene.
``A lot of us still have that chip on our shoulder,'' senior Darryl Monroe said. ``Like, 'Hey, this wasn't just a one-time thing.' We want to let everybody know this is a good program and we want to contend for a conference title, national title, all of it.''
Anyone paying attention already has received the message. The Patriots failed to make the NCAA tournament after losing the CAA tournament championship game in 2007, but last year they took the conference title and were back in the big dance.
This year looks promising as well, although this week will go far in determining George Mason's postseason worth. The Patriots play road games against the two one-loss teams in the conference: Wednesday at Northeastern and Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth.
``For us to get any consideration at all,'' Larranaga said, ``we're going to have to have a huge year in the league.''
That's because the Patriots' nonconference schedule wasn't very strong this season. Their current RPI is 48, well below the 2006 rating that earned them an NCAA at-large berth.
ance has risen steadily at the Patriot Center, and recruiting is much easier.
``The high-major schools will always get the most attention because they have multiple teams ranked,'' Larranaga said, ``and deservedly so.''
On campus, though, Larranaga is still a rock star, not afraid to break a mold or two. His players thought they would miss the inauguration when they learned of Tuesday's practice time, but the coach interrupted the workout at 11:57 a.m. and sent them to the locker room to perch in front of the television.
The players applauded when Obama took the oath and again after the speech. Then it was back to the court to finish practice.
Tuesday night, after landing in Boston for Wednesday's game, Larranaga planned to show his players a photo of himself with Obama and university President Alan Merton, taken on campus about a year ago. He said he would share a story about Obama's involvement in basketball and how it has affected the new president's life.
On Monday, Larranaga referenced Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday honoring the civil rights leader - and it was a very timely message. His Patriots nearly got into a nasty push-and-shove with James Madison's players during some trash-talking as the teams left the court after George Mason's win over the Dukes on Saturday.
Larranaga told his players about an episode involving King at an Atlanta church where an angry mob had gathered outside. King chose not to confront the crowd, which likely would have escalated the violence.
``He's been talking about discipline,'' senior John Vaughn said. ``He understands how it is to be out in front. We understand that we're hunted and other teams are hungry to take us down.''

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