FAIRFAX, Va. | During an interview in his office last February, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga spun in his chair and started typing away at his computer. He enthusiastically cited Web sites that gave his team a high computer ranking, trying to show the Patriots belonged in the NCAA tournament.
His number-crunching, of course, was more than justified a month later, when George Mason made its stunning run to the Final Four.
This February, Larranaga did not mention computer rankings as he sat behind his desk. When he turned in his chair and started stroking the keyboard, he was more concerned with schedules.
"We had six games away from home before final exams," Larranaga said. "Let's see how many road games Duke has played."
Duke didn't play its sixth road game until Jan. 20. Connecticut's sixth was even later (Jan. 31), more than seven weeks after George Mason's on Dec. 9.
"You get the idea," Larranaga said. "The point is, if we had a team where we could have hosted eight or 10 home (nonconference) games, we probably wouldn't be in this predicament. No one wants to play here."
The predicament is that George Mason (14-13) has followed its best season ever with possibly its worst in nearly a decade. With two regular season games remaining, the Patriots are an 8-8, middle-of-the-pack team in the Colonial Athletic Association. Yes, the ever-optimistic Larranaga is again talking about making some noise in the tournament -- but this time he's talking about the CAAs, not the NCAAs.
"We're going to be a long shot to win the CAA tournament," Larranaga said. "We've got to take advantage of that role again, the role of the underdog."
In an ideal world, George Mason would have followed its magical run with another solid season, pleasing its new fans and record Patriot Center crowds by staying at least on the fringes on the NCAA tournament bubble.
In the real world, the Patriots are a rebuilding team in a conference that's getting better. Only two starters returned, and only Will Thomas has the same on-court role he had last year. This season was going to be a challenge for Larranaga no matter what the circumstances, but throw in the scheduling difficulties and lingering expectations symbolized by the Final Four banner hanging in the rafters, and, well ...
"As hard as we've tried to separate the years, no one will let us," Larranaga said. "We're still compared to last year's team."
The fallout is evident, especially in the several close losses to the conference's top teams. Senior guard Gabe Norwood said his teammates want to win so badly that they're trying too hard. Junior guard Folarin Campbell said the new players on the team put extra pressure on themselves because "they think they have to become a part of a Final Four team."
Larranaga said his players have issues with confidence, pressure and playing smart. He was particularly upset after a home loss to Hofstra in which they abandoned some basics -- such as failing to hustle back on defense after committing a turnover.
He opened the next practice, as he always does, with one of his upbeat quotes -- Albert Schweitzer's "Success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success" -- but the coach also instituted a new rule in which players paid for their mistakes by running sprints.
When it was suggested to Larranaga that he doesn't have much time left for this team to find its identity, he again showed his unique Coach L mastery at finding the silver lining.
"There would be no better time, is the way I will look at it," he said. "And I will explain that to our team. There are teams that get it early and are able to maintain it. There are teams that get it early and lose it late. ... We plan to be that team that is up and down throughout the season, but things start clicking right at the very end when you need it the most."
The Patriots have prided themselves on being one of few schools in the country to have won at least 10 conference games for eight years running, but that streak will end unless they beat Georgia State on Tuesday and Northeastern on Saturday. Then comes the CAA tournament, which they need to win to make a return trip to the NCAAs.
Whatver happens, look for a bounce-back next season. The top six scorers will be back, along with the new recruits. Despite the distractions and extra pressure the Final Four run created, Larranaga is certain it will keep paying dividends.
"It'll just help us," Larranaga said. "It'll help us be better, hopefully at the end of this season -- and for sure next year."