Despite bumps along the way, GMU is confident


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George Mason senior Jon Larranaga laughed when talking about his team’s Feb. 19 road trip to UNC-Wilmington.

Not only did the Patriots lose by 20 points to the Colonial Athletic Association leaders that they’d beaten by 12 three weeks before, but they had some trouble getting home.

“It was about a 20-hour bus ride,” said the senior guard-forward, recalling how the team bus got a flat tire. “We watched about nine movies.”

That’s about how the Patriots’ season has been, an extra-long ride with some bumps in the road. But with a full, healthy roster, 16-11 George Mason has their bus rolling into Richmond for the CAA tournament, having gone 8-3 over their past 11 games.

“I’d say this time of the year is when you want to be playing your best,” said Larranaga. “Everybody’s really fired up to play in the tournament.”

The Patriots are excited for good reason. Though sixth-year head coach Jim Larranaga pegs the Seahawks as the team to beat, the tournament’s top five seeds (GMU is fourth) took turns defeating each other during regular-season play.

“I think the league is very deep in its quality this year,” said Jim Larranaga. “UNC-Wilmington is clearly the odds on favorite … but I also think there are other teams, VCU, Drexel, George Mason, Delaware, that are all very capable of winning the tournament.”

“It’s a pretty wide-open tournament this year,” said 6-foot-10 senior Jesse Young, who like Jon Larranaga, is one of the few remaining contributors from the 2001 Patriot squad that beat the Seahawks 35-33 in the CAA final. That team took eventual Final Four participant Maryland to the final seconds in an 83-80 loss in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament.

This year began with a spate of injuries and a suspension that left the GMU cupboard so bare that the team couldn’t even go five-on-five in practice, much less have a deep bench for games. Four freshmen and a sophomore became part of the early-season rotation, and only four players, including Larranaga and junior college transfer Mark Davis, have appeared in all 27 games.

But as players healed and the Patriots put their full squad on the court, they gradually became the good team they expected to be. Stuck at 8-8, a Jan. 25 win over William & Mary set them on a four-game winning streak and started their 8-for-11 stretch.

In the regular season, the Patriots swept third-seeded Drexel and fifth-seeded Delaware, their first-round opponent Saturday, and split with top-seeded Wilmington. They’re 5-3 against the tournament’s top five seeds, and two of those losses have come to No. 2 Virginia Commonwealth.

“We’ve played good basketball sporadically throughout the season, when we’ve been able to practice and been healthy,” said Jim Larranaga.

Having played well lately, they’re going into the Delaware game on a high.

“We feel we’re the best team in the league and we can beat anybody,” said Jon Larranaga. “That’s kind of the attitude you have to have, though. If you go down there thinking ‘we can’t beat this team,’ then you probably won’t.”

Davis leads the team in scoring at 15.9 per game, but Larranaga (13.3), Young (11.8) and point guard Raoul Heinen (10.8) are averaging double figures. The Patriots also earn their keep on defense, allowing 60.5 points per game, a half-point below the league’s best defense. Young is also the conference’s second-leading rebounder (8.5 rpg) and Davis is tied for seconds in steals per game (1.96).

“We’re healthy right now, and we’re feeling good about ourselves,” said Jim Larranaga, who has 298 career wins and has been to the NCAAs twice and the NIT four times at American International, Bowling Green and George Mason. “We’re going into the tournament optimistically.”

“This is what the season builds up to,” Young said. “It’ll be fun, especially for the new guys who haven’t been before, and especially in Richmond. The basketball, you can feel it in the air there.”

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