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George Mason’s starters are five of a kind

WashPost: Few schools wanted these players, but Patriots sought out winners
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There were two recruiting rules in Lamar Butler's mind. One came from his father.

"Go where you're loved," Lamar Butler Sr. told his son, over and over.

The other rule came from Rick Pitino.

"You get recognition," Pitino told Butler and a group of youth campers, "by winning."

Butler recounted these rules in late January, sitting on a folding chair at Patriot Center after a George Mason practice. In front of Butler, teammates Folarin Campbell and John Vaughan launched half-court bombs on the arena floor, the bouncing balls echoing as they caromed off the rim. Tony Skinn quietly rode a stationary bicycle.

Eight weeks and four NCAA tournament victories later, hundreds of reporters descended upon the same arena, with television lights and microphones and the same pressing questions. How did you wind up in Fairfax? Why didn't bigger schools recruit you? Why George Mason?

The answers aren't shocking or groundbreaking.

The Patriots' coaches didn't discover some loophole in recruiting rules or a secret formula for grading undiscovered talent. As they accumulated a stable of Maryland stars, local high school and AAU coaches took notice, but national pundits never predicted Final Four berths would follow.

Still, there were certain guidelines coaches used in putting together the first Final Four team from a non-major conference in a quarter-century. These themes brought together an overweight prep school center from Aberdeen, an unknown junior college guard from Takoma Park and three public school products from the Washington suburbs.

George Mason wanted players who had won: Of the Patriots' top seven players, six played in either state or league championship games during their final two years of high school. George Mason wanted players with local ties: Of the top seven players, six spent at least one year in a Maryland high school.

George Mason wanted players who wouldn't milk the process for more prestigious offers: All five starters orally committed in the summer or fall of their senior year. And George Mason wanted players who might be two inches too short for the Big East or 10 pounds too light for the ACC, but who were nevertheless skilled enough to play in the best conferences in the country.

"We always wanted to identify kids who could play anywhere," said former assistant Bill Courtney, who recruited all five starters. "We would tell them, 'We think you can play anywhere, but we want you to play for us.' "

Nixing Mason
That philosophy led Patriots coaches to Butler, the first and most important recruit on the current team. Butler had never heard of George Mason before a predecessor at Oxon Hill High, Terrance Nixon, committed to the school. Nixon's decision didn't stop Butler from throwing away his first recruiting letter from the Patriots -- "George Mason? Nah," he remembered thinking -- and it didn't stop him from dreaming about starring for Maryland, the school he had grown up following.

But Butler received only basic inquiries from the Terrapins, and so he focused on two Atlantic 10 schools: Xavier, his second choice after Maryland, and George Washington, his third. At the time, the Atlantic 10 was clearly a more prestigious league than the Colonial Athletic Association, but Larranaga and his staff judged their chances by the number of their competitors, not their names.

"We don't care who recruits the kid; we just want to know, 'Do we have a chance?' " Larranaga said. "If the kid says you're one of 10, we don't have a chance. If the kid says you're one of five, okay, we have got a shot. If he says you're one of three, we're in there hard."

Butler had enrolled in kindergarten early, and so in the summer before his senior year, he was 16 years old and weighed perhaps 150 pounds; "a total twig," Courtney said. The Patriots' coaches feared he would spend a year in prep school, gaining enough weight to attract a major-conference team.

But the guard thought about Pitino's advice; the Patriots had won 19 games two years in a row and had played in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year. And he thought about his father's advice, remembering the AAU tournaments at which Patriots coaches broke off from the pack of recruiters in the bleachers to stand underneath the basket, where they could point at Butler every time he ran up the court. Also, his grandmother was ill, and he wanted to go to a school where she would have a chance to see him play.

So Butler chose George Mason, which Larranaga called "a tremendous get." And the prize grew in significance when Butler said he wanted to be in Larranaga's profession one day and asked if he could help in the recruiting process. He soon began hosting virtually every recruit -- "I've probably hosted one of the coaches, that's how long I've been here," he said -- and he crafted his own pitch.

He told undersized players that they would be better off starting for George Mason than sitting on an ACC bench. He told of friends from Prince George's County who had gone searching for the bright lights of the power conferences, only to transfer because of a lack of playing time.

"It doesn't matter where you play," he would tell them, "as long as you play."

In Butler's freshman year, he hosted Jai Lewis, a massive center who had played football, basketball and lacrosse at Aberdeen High. Like Butler, Lewis won a Maryland state basketball championship his junior year, but he failed to get a qualifying score on the SAT and spent a postgraduate year at Maine Central Institute, the prep school that Caron Butler, Sam Cassell and Brad Miller attended.

Several dozen college recruiters came through MCI's gym that fall, but no major programs inquired about Lewis, who had Jerry Rice's hands, Usher's feet and Tom Arnold's body.

"He's a stevedore, a dockworker, a guy where if your car stops and you don't have a jack, he holds it up while you change the tire," said Karl Henrikson, Lewis's coach at MCI. "They have a certain type of athlete they look for at high Division I programs, and he was not in that particular mold."

Like Butler, Lewis wanted to go to a school where his family could see him play, where he could compete for league championships and where he could receive immediate playing time. Drexel was an ideal distance, but the Dragons began recruiting him late in the process. VCU pursued him as vigorously as George Mason, but Richmond was more than an hour past Fairfax. Towson offered him a scholarship, but the Tigers had not been as competitive as George Mason.

"I was used to having a winning record, and I wanted to go to a winning program," Lewis said. "Everybody wants to go to the highest level they can go, but I wanted to go where I knew I could play."

Iverson Skills
The next year brought another player with Division I skills crammed into a non-Division I body. Tony Skinn played high school basketball at Takoma Academy, a small private school, and was 10 points short of receiving a qualifying SAT score. The tiny guard was friendly with Takoma Park native Steve Francis, and he headed to Blinn College, a Texas two-year school that played in the same conference as San Jacinto College, where Francis had played before transferring to Maryland. But Skinn got homesick, fell out of favor with the coaching staff and decided to walk on at Hagerstown Community College the next season.

That fall, Courtney found himself with a free day, and without any particular provocation, he decided to drive to Hagerstown for a practice. Skinn, a close friend of former Patriot Jason Miskiri, met Courtney and said he would like to go to George Mason, and that he was willing to sit out the year at Hagerstown and serve as a team manager in order to preserve three years of eligibility for a Division I school.

Courtney "called me from the gym in Hagerstown," Larranaga remembered, "and said, 'Coach you need to be here tomorrow; this kid's the real deal. He's lightning fast, he can shoot the three, he kind of has Allen Iverson-type skills.' And my first thought is 'Well, I don't like Allen Iverson.' "

But Larranaga was also impressed, and the following weekend, Skinn visited George Mason. When he heard the Patriots were also recruiting future Drexel guard Bashir Mason, he committed on the spot. The entire process lasted about a week.

Sixty percent of the Final Four team was now in Fairfax, and that spring coaches made plans for a more ambitious recruiting mission, hoping to land three players from a list of five local stars. The highest-rated guard in that group was Folarin Campbell, who wanted a chance to play as a freshman and wanted his parents to be able to see his games.

His decision, which shocked local high school coaches, was thus a combination of timing -- Georgetown, his dream school, signed another guard shortly before Campbell's visit -- and geography. Laurel High's John Vaughan, who missed this season because of a knee injury, said he would choose George Mason if Campbell did, and they committed on consecutive days.

Less than a week later, they were joined by Thomas, another prototypical George Mason prospect. He was local, a Baltimore native. He was successful, leading Mount St. Joseph to its first Baltimore Catholic League title as a junior. And he was overlooked, constantly compared to high school rival Rudy Gay and told that he wasn't tall enough to be a power forward in a major conference.

Thomas's highest-profile scholarship offer was from Xavier; it was later pulled. The rest of his offers were from small-conference schools.

"It depends what number you have next to your name on those lists of high school players," said Thomas, who lost the BCL player of the year award to Gay during their senior year despite a 7-0 record in head-to-head meetings, and who failed to make the all-region team last weekend despite 29 points and 22 rebounds in two games. "If you want me to go prove myself over and over again, I will. "

After they arrived at George Mason, Campbell, Vaughan and Thomas and classmate Jordan Carter began calling themselves "The Dynasty Class." Dynasties, though, require championships. The Patriots are two wins away. "The first thing we would tell recruits was we're not happy being the best team in the CAA, we want to go to the tournament, we want to win games, we want to win the whole thing," Courtney said. "And damn if it isn't happening right now."