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A Final Four appearance is helping Jim Larranaga now, but it may not in later years.
WASHINGTON--Coaching success is nothing new to Jim Larranaga or Anthony Grant. What they're learning, though, is just how short the shelf life is on national headlines--and how important it is to strike while the iron is hot.
Larranaga's good friend coach Bob Oliva of Christ The King High School in the Bronx, N.Y., gave him the bottom line during a conversation this summer.
"He said to me, 'You have a three-year window with high school kids. Anything that's more than three years old, they've never heard of,'" Larranaga said yesterday. "We have a three-year window to take advantage of, and we've already done that."
The goodwill from George Mason's stunning run to the 2006 Final Four is still evident in Fairfax. GMU is renovating the Patriot Center and building a support facility. A school-record 22 of the Patriots' games will be televised this season, and Larranaga has parlayed his one shining moment into a strong recruiting class.
That's enough to make George Mason the Colonial Athletic Association preseason favorite--ahead of defending champion VCU, which has four of its top six players back from a team that upset Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March.
Now, Grant and the Rams are trying to exploit their exposure before it becomes yesterday's news.
"I think it's certainly given us some added visibility," Grant said yesterday at the CAA's annual media day at the ESPN Zone in D.C. "The exposure we got certainly helps when we go out recruiting."
So does the return of the CAA's most dynamic player, electric junior point guard Eric Maynor. His brilliant play in the CAA final against GMU--"Eric Maynor ruined my summer," Larranaga said with half a smile--and in the NCAA tournament earned him an invitation to play on the U.S. team in the Pan American Games last summer.
"I've coached on those teams, so I know how hard it is just to get a chance to try out for those teams," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said.
Of course, 15 minutes of fame can be a double-edged sword for midmajor teams. Grant's achievements in his first year as a college head coach made him the only candidate Florida contacted when Billy Donovan took (then abdicated) the job as coach of the NBA's Orlando Magic.
Grant, a longtime Gators assistant, spoke with Florida AD Jeremy Foley but never was offered the job before Donovan changed his mind. Even those nervous 48 hours, though, reflected well on VCU. New Rams AD Norwood Teague told a reporter that Grant's status as a hot commodity--like that of former coach Jeff Capel (now at Oklahoma) gives the impression that VCU is now a launching pad, both for players and coaches.
But as Larranaga learned last year, the luster fades quickly in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately era. Last season's Patriots, depleted by graduation, went 9-9 in CAA regular-season play before catching fire in the tournament--only to be foiled by Maynor.
"What I expect we will have learned from last season," Larranaga said, "is the same lesson other teams taught us: In the CAA, you can't take a night off. We were a very inconsistent team."
This year's squad should be better. All five starters return, including forward Will Thomas and guard Folarin Campbell, who starred on the Final Four team. Other supporting players are now comfortable with their roles, and the freshman class includes a previously unthinkable star recruit from powerhouse DeMatha, guard Isaiah Tate.
VCU has Maynor back, along with fellow starters Michael Anderson and Will Fameni. Still, Grant smiled when told how Larranaga had touted the Rams' veterans.
"I want to know what coach called our team experienced when I've got to go to practice every day with seven freshmen," he said.
Six of those seven hail from Florida, a nod to the reputation Grant carved as Donovan's top recruiter for a decade. Whether the Rams can snag a few blue-chip recruits who wouldn't have given them the time of day previously remains to be seen.
Still, as Flint--a former coach at Massachusetts--put it: "I've always been big on perception. If people perceive you to be good, they're going to look at you differently."
George Mason has been good for a while. Lately, they've been very good. Taking the next step and staying there is considerably harder.
Said Larranaga: "If we can turn not only on our run to the Final Four, but the success of VCU and ODU, into TV exposure, we can narrow the gap between us and the high majors."
The clock is ticking.Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443