Trying to build on buzz

After an eye-catching Final Four run, George Mason wants to hold the nation's attention

November 17, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Was George Mason's improbable run to the 2006 Final Four a life-altering experience?

Did it increase the vertical leap of Will Thomas and make the Patriots' big man a bigger man on campus?

"When we did all that stuff in the tournament, people were coming up from out of the blue, `I want your autograph,' all that," the junior forward from Baltimore said. "This [school] year, I've only had one person come up to me and say that. I can still walk by people and they really don't know who we are.

"It died down kind of quick. It's like it was before we got to the tournament."

That is the last thing George Mason administrators and coach Jim Larranaga want to hear.

The Patriots face a twofold challenge this season: Can they deal with a schedule in which every opponent has George Mason circled and build on the goodwill they created last March?

Thomas and a half-dozen other veterans will dictate how things go on the court. Off it, an increased television presence and the recent hiring of a marketing firm from Baltimore are part of a strategy designed to remove the mid-major tag from a program that eight months ago had never won an NCAA tournament game.

George Mason wants to create a college basketball brand akin to Gonzaga, while avoiding further comparison to a previous generation's pair of Cinderellas.

Indiana State reached the NCAA title game in 1979, but Larry Bird left and the Sycamores didn't return to the tournament until 2000. Pennsylvania, the other surprise at that Final Four, has since represented the Ivy League in 13 NCAA tournaments, but hasn't been back to the Sweet 16 and has two wins to show for all those trips.

George Mason has never had a player last longer than one season in the NBA, let alone one with Bird's star power. While Glen Miller will attempt to become the eighth coach to take Penn's legacy to the NCAAs, the Patriots recognized the value of Larranaga and locked him up through 2012.

That was part of a busy offseason for athletic director Tom O'Connor, who spent 12 years (1974-1986) at Loyola College as the basketball coach and then athletic director. He just formalized a new link to Charles Street, hiring the Leffler Agency to market George Mason basketball for three years.

`Mason Nation'

"George Mason is prepared to take advantage of the success that no one predicted," said Ron Bertovich, the Colonial Athletic Association's deputy commissioner for basketball. "It's not easy and it's not free, but shame on you if you don't try."

Bob Leffler's firm is behind the various "Bill" campaigns for Navy football, and "Pat's Cats" for Towson basketball, which had little to sell until coach Pat Kennedy was hired in 2004.

Leffler has the Patriots running with a slogan that grew out of an survey last March, when a majority in 46 states pulled for the long shot at the Final Four, hence "Mason Nation."

The hiring of Leffler's agency was announced Nov. 1. Eight days later, he completed a months-in-the-making deal to have George Mason games broadcast on Triple X ESPN Radio, the network started by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

Outside the BracketBusters promotion and its tournament championship game, only one CAA game was carried on ESPN and ESPN2 last season. George Mason's Dec. 9 game at Duke will be on ESPN, and tomorrow's home opener against Wichita State will be on ESPN2.

A sellout would be a first at the 10,000-seat Patriot Center. Traditional rival James Madison is the only CAA opponent ever to attract more than 8,000 fans here, and last season's average attendance was 4,533.

"Everybody is excited about what happened last year," Larranaga said. "They want to jump on the bandwagon earlier, hoping that the bandwagon will still roll on."

Larranaga knows that his Patriots are in a unique situation.

He has an economics degree from Providence, one of the last colleges without a football program to get to the Final Four before George Mason. O'Connor continues to explore adding football, but the largest university in Virginia also doesn't sponsor men's lacrosse, the major lure at many Mid-Atlantic campuses in the spring.

Leffler said George Mason will expand its fan base "unless they become abysmal for a decade," but before last March, the Patriots hadn't distinguished themselves from the CAA pack.

George Mason needed a controversial at-large bid to get to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. A loss in the CAA quarterfinals, where the Patriots won in overtime, would have meant another National Invitation Tournament for the only Division I program in America since 2000 to play a nonconference game at Coppin State.

The Patriots have nonconference games at Hampton, Radford and Holy Cross, and remain scheduling strychnine to major conferences.

"If we get to the point where we're like Gonzaga," Larranaga said, "then the perception is that it's not so bad to lose to a George Mason. Until that happens, the BCS schools don't see playing us as a gamble. They see it as a no-win."

Talent infusion

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