Days of being overlooked over for G. Mason's Lewis

Even NFL now beating path to ex-Aberdeen High player's door

Ncaa Men

Ncaa Tournament

March 29, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

Lewis no longer under radar There was a long pause on the phone when Richard Hart, the Aberdeen High boys basketball coach, tried to recall any Division I programs that had recruited Jai Lewis, his former All-Metro center.

Hart couldn't remember a single one.

"There was definitely not a major program involved," he said.

After a standout career in high school that went virtually unnoticed, Lewis has since become a critical piece in George Mason's unprecedented run to the Final Four.

Lewis' combination of girth and athleticism has not only attracted the interest of scouts for NFL teams - including the Ravens - but his performances in the NCAA basketball tournament have also padded his resume for a possible professional basketball career, most likely overseas.

"I've been the underdog all the time," the laid-back Lewis said at the Elite Eight at Verizon Center in Washington. "It really didn't bother me. Just being underrated all throughout high school and college, that's what I go out every night to do - just prove myself."

The entire team proved its worth in this tournament with wins over Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State.

Then, led by Lewis, the No. 11-seeded Patriots shocked the basketball nation with Sunday's 86-84 overtime upset of No. 1 seed Connecticut, the team favored to win this year's national championship.

Lewis, a senior who has played in every game since he has been at George Mason, scored a team-high 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

"You look at him and say, `This kid isn't going to hurt us,' and then all of a sudden he has 20 points and 10 rebounds," said Karl Henrikson, who coached Lewis for a year at a prep school in Maine.

"He's got a unique understanding of the game from his position. He knows where to throw the ball out to when he gets double-teamed and he can read defenders."

Lewis, the Patriots' leading scorer (13.5) and rebounder (7.8), has lateral quickness and is nimble for his size: 6 feet 7, 275 pounds.

"I may not be the quickest," he said, "but I'm quick enough."

Lewis' ability to back his way under the basket and score gave George Mason a post presence it needed to be able to compete with the taller Huskies. George Mason outrebounded UConn, 37-34.

"Jai is an unusual athlete," guard Tony Skinn said. "You look at his size and you think that he's slow, but Jai is the total opposite. He is quick with his hands and feet and he can do a lot of things that big guys his size can't do. He shoots the ball well, he can dribble the ball and also he can use his body down low."

In the four tournament games, Lewis has averaged 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds. And he had four steals against North Carolina. "Defensively," George Mason assistant coach James Johnson said, "he's been doing it all year.

"He's got the NFL scouts all over him," Johnson said. "They love his hands and they love his feet. Pretty much every one of our games, there have been NFL scouts."

His hands have caught a lot of the attention.

"If you shot a BB at that guy," Henrikson said, "he'd catch it."

In high school football, Lewis was a tight end, running back and fullback ("Hey," he said, "I stayed low. Short yardage, long yardage - whatever."). He lettered three times in basketball, twice in football and lacrosse and once in track and field.

"I don't know what I do best, but my IQ, just knowing what to do in certain situations, I know how to react to a situation on the court or on the field, wherever it may be," Lewis said. "I know after the season, when I finally need to find out what I'm going to do, it's going to be a hard decision."

Hart seemed to think it's an easy one.

"If I have to go and be the only guy that stands up and says Jai Lewis is a basketball player, I'm going to be that guy," Hart said. "I know he's a prototypical tight end - height, weight, great hands, but ...

"I don't want to say he can't do that if he so desires, but Jai, he's a nice guy," Hart said. "I don't think he has that - whatever that is for football. But he doesn't mind banging people on the basketball court."

Lewis hasn't played a game of organized football since his senior year at Aberdeen. George Mason does not have a varsity football program. Every year, he asked George Mason coach Jim Larranaga if he could play in the school's fall intramural football, and, each year, he was turned down.

"Jai is an extraordinary athlete," Larranaga said. "He played lacrosse, football and basketball in high school, but when we recruited Jai, it was strictly with the idea he would play basketball in college. Sharing him with anybody else would not be what would be best for him and us."

Most of his teammates have never seen Lewis play football - and Gabe Norwood's father, Brian, is an assistant on Penn State's staff.

"I haven't seen him touch a football, but at the same time, just knowing his athleticism, there's not a lot of guys his size that can move around the way he does," Gabe Norwood said.

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