Fairfax, Va. -- George Mason's basketball secret?
It may be Liz Larranaga, the coach's wife.
Jim and Liz Larranaga are a one-two recruiting punch, says school president Alan Merten.
They both have outgoing personalities and a warm style that sends a message to players and recruits that they care about more than simply basketball.
"Every basketball recruit gets the Liz Larranaga treatment," Merten says. "She's the surrogate mother."
Larranaga was one of Merten's first hires when the president arrived 10 years ago.
Merten says he's thrilled to see Larranaga getting national credit for being a good coach. "It's like the old saying that you're an overnight success after only 20 years," the president says.
Basketball is king
George Mason's run to the Final Four may mean more at the school than at others whose upstart teams have advanced deep into the tournament.
That's because basketball serves as an important anchor. George Mason has no football team to rally around, and a lot of students go home on weekends.
"Basketball is what centers our school," said Neil Barbieri, a sophomore from East Islip, N.Y.
George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor found himself banished from the room a few weeks ago during meetings of the NCAA tournament selection committee, of which he is a member.
It wasn't that O'Connor did anything wrong. It's just that George Mason's possible entry into the 65-team NCAA field was being discussed.
O'Connor, who was Loyola's athletic director from 1976 to 1986, says he didn't lobby for his team during the process. "I didn't talk to anybody about George Mason," he said.
A tougher ticket
Up until now, George Mason has had trouble attracting big crowds for home games at the Patriot Center. That's because the towering Patriot Center seats 10,000 and looks even bigger than that.
"People come to our venue and see 5,000 people and say, `How come you can't put more people in here?'" O'Connor said.
Now, that may change.
During the regular season, the Patriots had 1,200 season-ticket holders and relied heavily on walk-up sales.
Demand is likely to accelerate next season. In fact, some students say they are now worried that the good seats will be harder to come by.