George Mason Enjoying the Sweet Ride

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga walked through the nearly empty Patriot Center on Tuesday afternoon in an oversized grey sweat suit, carrying a heavy stack of newspapers in his arms. When he came upon his three leading scorers -- Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn -- he interrupted their impromptu shootaround and started spreading the news.

"This is yesterday's New York Post," Larranaga said, passing around tabloids and broadsheets for inspection, each one bearing a full-color photo of a beaming Patriot. "Here's the New York Daily News from yesterday, and USA Today. That's today's. And here's the Washington Post, front section and sports section."

Larranaga then made his way through the side hallways and entered the training room. That's where he found big Floridian forward Sammy Hernandez peeling off an ice wrap.

"There you are, Sammy," said the coach, handing him the Washington Post. "Make sure your girlfriend in Miami gets a copy."

"Thanks, coach," answered Hernandez, his beaming grin perfectly matching the one in the picture. "Yeah, she saw it online."

"What I wanted to do with the newspapers is to show them there are people in New York that are writing about them," Larranaga said afterward. "They're not going to write if no one has interest. There are TV cameras here; they're not going to come if no one has interest."

As one of the last 16 teams standing in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, there's been a whole lot of national interest in the No. 11-seeded team that wiped out half of the 2005 Final Four last weekend in Dayton. By achieving a berth in the Washington Regional, the Patriots became the first Colonial Athletic Association squad in the quartet of quartets since Richmond made it in 1988 and unleashed a wave of national attention.

There's also been a surge of support in this little Colonial city just outside the Beltway. There's a long banner draped across Chain Bridge Road that proclaims, "Congratulations GMU Patriots -- Good Luck In The Round of 16." The windows of the local shops and boutiques are draped with green-and-gold streamers and ribbons, with hand-painted signs reading "How Sweet It Is!" and "We've Got Patriot Pride!" And on campus, there's no doubt as to what the hottest spring colors are.

"Oh man, everyone had the George Mason gear on today," said Butler, smiling broadly. "The sweatshirts and hats, T-shirts, socks, underwear ... you know. That makes me feel real good."

But Tuesday marked the end of the laurel-resting and the beginning of the focus on Wichita State, George Mason's Friday foe in the regional semifinal. Fifteen minutes after Larranaga played paperboy, the overhead scoreboard that had echoed the 65-60 score of their second round win over national champion North Carolina was erased. All the Patriots players and coaches gathered in a circle on the floor.

"This is our preparation now," Larranaga told his team. "We took yesterday off, with no basketball. Now get good and loose, because we're going hard."

What followed was a strenuous series of sprints, drills and scrimmages, punctuated by three one-minute times for hydration. They worked on their fast break until Larranaga was satisfied. When the Patriots paired off to play first-to-five one-on-one games, Skinn and Butler took turns dropping face-up jumpers on each other -- a matchup so intense that players at the four side baskets peeked over to watch. Throughout the labor, Patriots players glistened and dripped, turning the hard court into a treacherous lake of sweat.

"Can we get a towel?" barked the coach, pointing to a spot on the floor. "We've got some excess wetness here."

Ninety grueling minutes later, the players gathered again at center court.

"OK, good work," said Larranaga. "Now we're going to play a little baseball."

Somebody produced a foam bat from the equipment room, and the Patriot Center was instantly transformed into Patriot Stadium. One key served as batter's box, the opposite foul line second base, the tips of the timeline an invisible first and third. White-haired Larranaga played pitcher, flinging the rubber ball like Walter Johnston reincarnated.

In the ball game's key play, Skinn banged an opposite-field shot off the collapsed bleachers on the far end (a very green and monstrous wall) and sped around the bases. But his bid for an inside-the-court home run was thwarted when the long throw came into catcher/power-forward Lewis -- at 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, he showed plate-blocking skills that could end up frustrating all of the football scouts who have been following him around lately.

"Safe, safe!" exclaimed Butler, wildly swinging both arms from side to side. "He's safe!"

"Every kid who plays basketball plays because it's fun," Larranaga said minutes after the final inning was completed. "So practice is fun, too. It is hard work, though, but work is fun. You have to look forward to it. I tell the guys that I got into coaching because I didn't want to have to work. I believe Confucius said to choose a job you love and you won't have to work a day in your life, and I did just that."

And if Larranaga's balance of work and fun results in a second consecutive two-victory weekend, next Tuesday afternoon he'll have to hire a forklift to lug around all the newspapers.

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of and is a daily contributor to