Reflections from a reporter born in 1987

One game at a time, Larranaga's Patriots build their NCAA case

February 6, 2011 - 03:12 AM
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Already a legend at George Mason, Jim Larranaga has his team aiming for a fourth CAA regular season title. (Photo: Associated Press)

It shouldn't be a surprise by now that a postgame press conference featuring George Mason University head coach Jim Larranaga is something like a cross between visiting your grandpa and seeking counsel from a yogi, in that something quotable is always likely to come out. But if you still doubt the 62-year-old's aversion to typical coachspeak, below are two particularly memorable pearls of wisdom:

After his team's 84-58 win over Towson January 27, Larranaga was asked what his team would do to avoid reprising last year's swan dive down the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) standings, when the Patriots lost seven of their last nine regular season games, were bounced in the CAA Tournament quarterfinals by VCU, and lost in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (yes, that's a real event) at home against Fairfield.

Larranaga's answer went, in part: "The past is history, the future is a mystery, and the present is a gift. That's why they call it the present." The words were so carefully chosen and slowly enunciated that no one in the room dared chuckle or groan.

Wednesday night, after an 87-68 win over Hofstra, Larranaga was asked about preparations for Saturday's homecoming game against Old Dominion. The coach, addressing the question as he does most questions -- with an air of extreme patience -- could have left it at his initial response, "For now, we're just going to enjoy tonight's game." But then he elaborated by saying, "We call it sharpening our saw."

It seems that during preseason, Larranaga had told his team a story about two lumberjacks ("What do they call those guys who cut down trees?" the native of the Bronx and graduate of Queens' Archbishop Molloy High School asked). One worked straight through for eight hours, while the other, victorious competitor had stopped every hour on the hour to "rest and sharpen his saw."

"With us," Larranaga continued, only forgetting to preface his remarks with "the moral of the story is ...," "we have got to be smart about gaining some valuable rest and be focused physically, mentally and emotionally for our next game."

That "next game" came Saturday against Old Dominion, one of two teams (along with aforementioned Hofstra) to have beaten the Patriots in CAA play. It was Homecoming Saturday in Fairfax, traffic inched along Braddock Road, and a full house of 9,840 fans filled the Patriot Center, all but about 40 of them wearing green and gold and screaming their lungs out for George Mason.

At the first media timeout, 4:38 into the game, the Patriots had missed four field goal attempts and two foul shots, had turned the ball over three times, and were very lucky to only be trailing the Monarchs 5-0. In describing the early going afterward, the George Mason players sounded a lot like their coach.

"There's something we learned about last year, called EA level," senior guard Cam Long, who had 14 points and six rebounds. "It's based on your energy level. Early on, the whole team's EA level was on overload. We had steam flying out of our ears, our eyes, everywhere."

EA levels? Coach, you wouldn't happen to know anything about this, would you?

"Last year, we brought in a group that tried to show the kids what it means to play under pressure," Larranaga said after his players had left the room. "It actually refers to emotional level, not energy level. You look at a team like the Boston Celtics, and a guy like Kevin Garnett, who's like an 8, 9, or 10 on the emotional level. Then you have a guy like Paul Pierce, who's about a 5, and then a guy like Ray Allen who's about a 2 or a 3 and is that calm, clear-headed guy you want on the floor.

"So we evaluated each other and [junior forward] Mike Morrison said, 'I'm more like Kevin Garnett,' and [Long] said, 'Well, I'm more like Ray Allen.'"

Makes perfect sense. But there was still the small matter of getting the team under control during that first timeout Saturday afternoon. "I had to remind them," Larranaga said, "that it's not about who we play or where we play, it's about how we play." And so George Mason went back out and held ODU to 15-of-55 shooting from the floor (27.3%), made life genuinely miserable for forward Frank Hassell (who scored 9 points on just 3-of-11 shooting), and pulled away in the second half for a 62-45 win.

Mason has now won nine games in a row by an average of 18.5 points per game. Remove the lone squeaker in this stretch, a 75-73 road win over James Madison January 22, and the average margin is bumped up to 20.6 points per game. Since George Mason's NCAA Tournament prospects were last written about in this space, the Patriots have continued to lead the CAA in points per game (74.5), scoring margin (+12.4), field goal percentage (.483), three-point field goal percentage (.392), and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3). In six of the nine wins on George Mason's current streak, they've allowed fewer points than their season average (62.1, third in the conference behind Old Dominion and Drexel).

"We shared a quote from Kevin Garnett," Larranaga said Saturday, dipping into the Boston well again, "'The Boston Celtics are a defensive team that can also score.' We see ourselves the same way."

Mason's streaking, combined with the slight falterings of Virginia Commonwealth, Drexel, Old Dominion, Hofstra, and James Madison, have turned the race for the CAA regular season title into a match race for the time being between the Patriots and Rams. With two games remaining before their meeting in Richmond February 15, GMU and VCU have an 11-2 conference record, two games better than Old Dominion and Hofstra, three games better than Drexel, and four ahead of James Madison. Unless an upset is sprung in the CAA Tournament next month (not at all out of the realm of possibility), it would appear that both George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth would receive the two bids to the NCAA Tournament that most analysts seem to think the conference will get.

"This is my 14th year in the league [as George Mason coach]," Larranaga said. "This is the best the league has been in my 14 years here." His team currently ranks the highest in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) standings of all the teams in the CAA (RPI refers to a formula derived from a team's wins and losses, as well as strength of schedule--the higher the RPI, generally speaking, the better your chances of making the NCAA Tournament). Mason is 29th in Division I, with Old Dominion four spots behind them. Drexel checks in at 56, Virginia Commonwealth is at 64, James Madison is at 84, and Hofstra rounds out the CAA representation in the top 100 at 95.

It has become fashionable among many college basketball analysts to criticize the RPI rankings for being too heavily in favor of teams from so-called "power conferences" as opposed to mid-major schools like Mason. But in Larranaga, the RPI has a firm supporter. "The RPI is about what you do on the court," Larranaga said Saturday, as the pitch of his voice rose somewhat alarmingly. "It's not about how tall you are or how talented you are, it's about you and who you beat."

But all this tournament talk might be a bit premature, anyway. The next win George Mason picks up will be the team's 20th of the season, the traditional benchmark for those in NCAA contention. But the Patriots still have six regular season games left, followed by as many as three more games in the CAA Tournament. And unless they wind up cutting down the nets in Richmond March 7, there's no guarantee that they will dance with the rest of the chosen 67. Does Larranaga think his team has peaked too soon?

"We've got one game, it's the next game [Tuesday at UNC-Wilmington], and we're going to prepare for that game," Larranaga said. "We don't think in terms of peaks and valleys right now. We think in terms of consistent effort, consistent execution."

Time to sharpen the saw again.

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