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Mason’s Larranaga Having Grand Time

March 23, 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Laughin’ all the way, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga is having a grand ol’ time at the NCAA tournament. He tells his players to relish the moment, then makes sure they do by making them guffaw at his awkward dance moves or by having them play a version of stickball.

Come Friday night, after Larranaga’s 11th-seeded Patriots face No. 7 seed Wichita State in a rematch between ``mid-majors″ at the Washington Regional, one of those unheralded programs will be a victory away from the fun of the Final Four.

It’s common to hear that chances like this might come along once, but Larranaga knows that’s so: This is his 22nd season as a college head coach, and first with an NCAA tournament victory.

So when the hype started setting in after wins over Michigan State and North Carolina, a former assistant wanted to know how Larranaga would deal with the distractions.

``I said, ‘What distractions? You live for this!’ Larranaga recalled Thursday at the arena, 20 miles from Mason’s Fairfax, Va., campus. ``I told our players, ’It can’t get any better than this! If you can’t have fun and enjoy the excitement surrounding our program, you can’t get excited about anything!‴

It was all part of a rollicking moment in the spotlight for a 56-year-old coach who repeated ``it doesn’t get any better than this″ once, twice, three times.

And he really meant it, every tooth showing when he smiled. When he talked about the media deluge. When he mentioned coaching advice from sons Jay, who played for Dad at Bowling Green, and Jon, who played at Mason. When he gave shoutouts to grandkids.

If Larranaga speaks in exclamation points, Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon’s sentences use periods.

The first words from Turgeon? ``We’re just happy to be here.″

He later explained Wichita State’s first trip to the round of 16 since 1988: ``This team is taking it one game at a time.″

Turgeon also has a bit of Lou Holtz in him, talking down his team _ ``When the year started, I said that I didn’t think we were very good″ _ and talking up his opponent.

``A lot of things have to go right for us. They are that good,″ said Turgeon, whose team lost to George Mason 70-67 at home last month. ``They are so talented. They have so many guys that can score. And they are one of the best defensive teams that we’ve played.″

Actually, both teams in Friday’s first game _ top-seeded Connecticut faces No. 5 Washington afterward _ play superb D.

George Mason tied for eighth in the nation in opponents’ field-goal percentage (38.6); Wichita State tied for 26th (40.1). Both allow fewer than 62 points a game.

Facing anyone else, both probably could play the ``underdog″ card. Neither Wichita State nor George Mason was ranked in the final AP Top 25. Neither comes from a power conference.

Like plenty of coaches, Larranaga always seems to be dreaming up ways to keep his players loose. Turgeon’s not a stick in the mud, either: His team closed Thursday’s practice with a dunk contest.

Mason breaks monotony by playing ``unity ball,″ hitting wadded up paper wrapped with athletic tape. They played before traveling to the first round, and again Tuesday.

Don’t think Larranaga can’t be serious.

He suspended Tony Skinn for a game after the senior guard punched a Hofstra player during the CAA tournament. Some wondered whether Skinn’s absence might lead the NCAA selection committee to bypass the Patriots.

``We’re responsible for helping our players learn,″ Larranaga said. ``This is one of those life lessons.″

Skinn understood.

``He was mad at me a little bit,″ Skinn said, ``but he was the one who called me more than anyone else, just to make sure I was fine.″

Before the North Carolina game, Larranaga told his green-clad players to think of themselves as kryptonite. After winning, Larranaga did a jig in the locker room.

``Coach has no rhythm,″ senior guard Lamar Butler said. ``We laugh every time.″

When the Patriots executed a drill properly Thursday, Larranaga turned to the stands and waved his palms, as if to say, ``Cheer, everybody!″ The fans complied, eliciting a hearty laugh from Larranaga.

``Seeing him be so happy kind of motivates us to know that basketball is a game of fun,″ Skinn said. ``You get too serious and get too tense, you might have jitters on the court, so we’re trying to stick to that mode of having fun. It works for us.″

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