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Date published: 1/24/2007
Just three weeks ago, George Mason was 0-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association and 6-7 overall, not quite the encore performance Patriots fans had hoped for after its Cinderella Final Four run last season.
That was before Jim Larranaga's club raced back into the conference title race with a five-game win streak. Now, when Virginia Commonwealth coach Anthony Grant looks at tape of the 2006-07 Patriots, he sees a team that isn't all that much different from the group he last faced as a Florida assistant last April in Indianapolis.
"The thing that impressed me about them last year was that they were really a team. Everybody contributed to their success, and they're playing the same way this season," said Grant, whose Rams will take a 16-3 overall record and a perfect 8-0 CAA mark into tonight's 7 p.m. game against Mason at the Patriot Center.
GMU (11-7, 5-3) started slowly as younger players struggled to fill the roles of departed veterans Jai Lewis, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn. Close losses to Wichita State, Creighton and Bucknell were followed by a more lopsided defeat at Duke, and then the Patriots opened conference play by falling to Drexel, Old Dominion and William & Mary.
But since Larranaga named junior Jordan Carter the team's starting point guard, the Patriots have taken flight. Their average margin of victory during the recent win streak is 21.8 points, helping them move into a tie for fourth place with ODU.
"It would've been better if I had figured this thing out a month ago," Larranaga joked.
Now Larranaga and Co. have to figure out how to slow down a VCU attack that leads the CAA in scoring offense (75.6 points per game). Mason is No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (56.8), but the Patriots have yet to face a team that plays at a faster tempo than the Rams.
"They're very active and put a lot of pressure on you defensively, then they turn around and pressure you because of the way they shoot from the 3-point line," Larranaga added. "It's like preparing for Florida all over again."Neal doing it all
After transferring from LaSalle, Gary Neal arrived at Towson with the reputation of a dangerous but undisciplined scoring machine.