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If there was any doubt whether George Mason's feel-good vibe was pierced by a Final Four loss to Florida, it vanished by 10 a.m. Sunday morning. As the Patriots gathered in the lobby of their downtown Indianapolis hotel and prepared to depart for home, cuddly shooting guard Lamar Butler clutched assistant coach Scott Cherry's infant son in his arms and cooed.
Coach Jim Larranaga's sons wandered the lobby, liberally dispensing hugs and posing for pictures. The elder Larranaga was introduced to Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and he never broke from his we're-so-happy-to-be-here routine." "Governor, how are you," a beaming Larranaga said. "I don't think I ever met a governor until Mark [Warner]. Now it's two in a row. I'm on a roll! Who's the next governor I can meet?" Count Kaine among the Patriots' legion of new fans; a few minutes later, he approached Butler." Can I come say hi quick?" he asked. "I'm the governor of Virginia."
There were some tears in the postgame locker room Saturday night, but even then the Patriots were remarkably upbeat, laughing and ribbing each other while Butler asked straggling reporters whether they'd like any more quotes. The Patriots had pledged to have more fun than any team in this tournament, and it seems they succeeded.
"You know, you have a lot of different ways to look at things, and we always choose the positive," Larranaga said. "We're going to try to keep the loss to Florida in perspective, but really keep the wins that led us to the Final Four in the forefront."
At some point, the focus will turn to the future, on the basketball court and beyond. Three seniors -- Butler, Jai Lewis, and Tony Skinn -- will move on; all three were invited to this week's Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a pre-draft camp.
But help will arrive in many places. Guard John Vaughan and forward Jesus Urbina will return from season-ending injuries. Next year's recruits include Louis Birdsong, who led Mount St. Joseph to a 38-1 record and was named the Baltimore area's player of the year, and Darryl Monroe, who averaged 18.7 points a game for Central Florida Community College.
Sophomore starters Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell played their best basketball of the season in the NCAA tournament, while top reserves Gabe Norwood, Sammy Hernandez and Jordan Carter all have remaining eligibility.
"This team is definitely going to have the chance to compete next year and hopefully try to do something special again," Skinn said. "I'm still a little salty about last night, and I know my teammates are as well, because we're competitors. But I think maybe in the next 48 hours, once that sinks in, we'll be able to reflect on what we've done. We've done something special."
Their exploits brought unprecedented attention to their school and their basketball team this week. "George Mason" was Google's most-requested search Saturday, and a youth basketball association has already requested a 1,000-seat block of tickets for a game next season.
More than half of the university's 16-member Board of Visitors attended Saturday's game, and President Alan G. Merten is scheduled to meet with senior administrators this week to discuss how to best wring lasting benefits from the basketball team's renown. He said that the school's enrollment targets could be revised upward and hinted that the university has already explored ways to retain the 56-year-old Larranaga, who figures to draw interest from major programs this month but has said he would like to retire at George Mason.
"You can just say the university administration has spent time over the last two weeks dealing with the future of the basketball program," Merten said.
But the Patriots' legacy will extend beyond their roster and dilemmas. They came to stand for every non-major school in the country during their tournament run. Larranaga has expressed both a hope that the Patriots will offer inspiration to other unknown teams, and a concern his team's success will create pressure on his peers.
"I don't know the ripple effect this will have," said Larranaga, who remained behind in Indianapolis to collect a coaching award. "I hope it's a positive one. I am concerned that it won't be, that more people will create unrealistic expectations on mid-major programs and coaches. There's always too much emphasis placed on winning at all costs, and I would just hope that people would enjoy what we did."
The Patriots certainly did. During the trip home, they autographed basketballs, pennants, T-shirts and magazines, for each other, for students and for school employees. When they finally arrived at Patriot Center, they were greeted by dozens of fans clapping and holding signs; one called George Mason "America's Most Beloved Team Ever."
The Patriots unloaded their luggage and walked to their cars, where they were hounded again. Butler, the face of the team, soon attracted a ring of 30 or 40 admirers, who clamored for photographs and asked for autographs and oohed and ahhed.
"Look at that smile," one female fan squealed.
As Butler left the RCA Dome court Saturday night, he had tears in his eyes. Now, on a sunny afternoon, left by himself in the middle of a mob of fans, he grinned.
"They've never done anything like this before," said fourth-year George Mason student Romana Muzzammel. "Why wouldn't we be excited?"
By Dan Steinberg
The Washington Post
Monday, April 3, 2006