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George Mason -- who? -- basks in spotlight

Back to back marquee victories in the NCAA tournament has brought George Mason coach Jim Larranaga and his Patriots satisfaction.
Back to back marquee victories in the NCAA tournament has brought George Mason coach Jim Larranaga and his Patriots satisfaction. (AP Photo)

Don't know much about George Mason's basketball team? How about the school itself? Or the man for whom it was named?

The 11th-seeded Patriots' run to the round of 16 at the NCAA Tournament is helping answer those questions.

For coach Jim Larranaga, victories over sixth-seeded Michigan State and defending champion North Carolina, a No. 3 seed, bring professional satisfaction -- not to mention a great recruiting tool.

But to Larranaga and others around the tree-lined campus in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va., they signify something larger.

''What it really means," Larranaga said yesterday, sitting in his office at the on-campus Patriot Center, ''is people will find out more about George Mason."

And then he proceeded to rattle off facts. Not about his so-called ''mid-major" basketball program, mind you, but about the university itself, pointing out the law school's growing reputation, for example, and boasting that 2002 Nobel economics prize winner Vernon Smith is a Mason professor.

To Lamar Butler, a senior guard who led the Patriots (25-7) with 18 points against the Tar Heels, it means overdue recognition for a league (the Colonial Athletic Association) that hadn't earned two NCAA berths in 20 years.

''People said they feel like they go to a real university now," Butler said after enjoying plenty of pats on the back and shouts of congratulations while walking to class yesterday morning.

His path might have taken him past the bronze statue of George Mason himself, which someone adorned with a green, gold, and white team jersey.

The statue's right hand sits atop a pile of books by thinkers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and David Hume. The left, into which was tucked a green and gold pompon yesterday, holds a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Mason, a slave owner, wrote in 1776 and was the model for the Constitution's Bill of Rights.

To dean of admissions Andrew Flagel and athletic director Tom O'Connor, the basketball success means a chance to let all sorts of potential students hear more about a school that began as an offshoot of the University of Virginia in the 1950s, became its own university only in 1972, and has grown quickly into the largest public four-year school in the state, with about 30,000 students.

''The exposure is terrific. It's great brand identity for the school," O'Connor said.

For the record, Mason's main campus (there are three other outposts) is about 6 miles off the Beltway, the highway that loops around DC. The Fairfax campus is 21 miles from the Verizon Center that will host Friday's Washington Regional semifinals -- George Mason plays seventh-seeded Wichita State, a team it beat last month, and top-seeded Connecticut faces fifth-seeded Washington -- and Sunday's game that will determine who goes to the Final Four.

There has been a concerted effort on Larranaga's part to increase the local fan base; last season, the team drew an average of fewer than 4,000 spectators to the 10,000-seat Patriot Center. That improved to 4,533 this season, perhaps thanks to Larranaga and players spending time each week speaking with student groups to drum up interest.

''We're big time now," said Michael LaRosa, a junior communications major.

Before last week, the Patriots never had won an NCAA Tournament game. They came close in 2001 as the CAA champions but were edged by Maryland, 83-80, in the first round.

''The night we lost to Maryland," Larranaga recalled, ''I was in bed, thinking, 'How would it have been if we won?'

''Now I know."

Tubbs steps down
Lamar coach Billy Tubbs is leaving after three seasons, but will stay as the athletic director at his alma mater. Tubbs compiled a 46-43 record over three seasons, including 17-14 this season. His overall record with the Cardinals is 121-89, which includes a four-year stint in the '70s.

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