Category archive: George Mason Patriots

Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager called Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino on Thursday to give him the professional courtesy of knowing that he would be contacting a few of Iamarino's member schools, widely believed to be Davidson and College of Charleston.

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Tom Yeager
Rafael Suanes/US PresswireCAA commissioner Tom Yeager has seen three member schools depart in recent weeks.

"I appreciate that and I'm hoping to convince them [to stay]," Iamarino said. "We've got league meetings coming up [May 29-June 1 in Asheville, N.C.] and like every other conference, except the Ivy League, I suspect, 85 to 90 percent of the issues will be centered around realignment issues."

The trickle-down effect of conference realignment seems to never end. The CAA loses anchor programs VCU (to the Atlantic 10 in the fall of 2012) and Old Dominion (to Conference USA in the fall of 2013). Those two moves came on the heels of Georgia State moving to the Sun Belt.

The CAA has to do something to maintain relevance, and the Southern Conference, and possibly the America East Conference, are ripe for the pickings. (America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen said the league won't comment on any overtures from the CAA or anyone else toward its programs, such as Boston University and Stony Brook.)

"[The CAA] is such a Southern league I think they have to replace them with Southern teams," Delaware coach Monte Ross said. "I think they have to have that Southern flavor that the league is known for, and Davidson is a quality name and program."

Said Towson coach Pat Skerry: "But we've got to get someone in the North, too. Stony Brook could be a viable option."

Davidson and College of Charleston are the most obvious choices.

Iamarino is well aware of the interest in his league's programs. But he said he has every intent of reminding the schools that they are in a competitive league and the proximity of the member schools offers low travel costs.

"We're all within the geographic footprint," Iamarino said. "We avoid missing class time. The fans can travel to road games. That's why conferences were normally put together in the first place."

Iamarino said the exit fee is $300,000 for notice of two years or more and $600,000 for less than two years.

Charleston athletic director Joe Hull said the school doesn't have a position on the matter yet and said his school was happy in the Southern Conference.

Davidson athletic director James Murphy said it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on conference affiliation. But head coach Bob McKillop was willing to speak.

He said that 25 percent of the 1,800 students on campus play a sport, meaning that a move to the CAA affects a high percentage of the student population.

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Jeff Siner/Getty ImagesDavidson head coach Bob McKillop doesn't necessarily believe the Wildcats' prospects would be improved by a move out of the Southern Conference.

"We have rigorous academic standards," McKillop said. "We've been to the NCAA tournament five times and the NIT twice in the past 10 years. We present a unique situation. But any decision will be made at the presidential level, not just a basketball decision."

Translation: Davidson is doing just fine in the Southern and doesn't necessarily need to move to the CAA. It also means that their options may not be limited to the CAA. The CAA needs Davidson to beef up its membership and provide a consistent competitor for the likes of George Mason and Drexel.

"VCU left the Colonial for the A-10, but who is to say the A-10 isn't going to change in the next three to four months? Who is to say the Big East or who is to say the Colonial won't change more?" McKillop said. "The dominoes have been blowing from the BCS. There are so many kinds of hypotheticals. Maybe James Madison and Delaware will go to the MAC in football or William & Mary to the Patriot."

Northeastern coach Bill Coen said he's hopeful that there are no knee-jerk reactions in the CAA.

"I think everyone needs to take a breath," Coen said. "You have to guard against doing something quickly that might not be a long-term solution."

George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said the onus is on the remaining schools to continue to show a commitment to remaining in the league.

"We all need to be proactive," O'Connor said. "You can't be stagnant. If you look internally and basketball is important to you then make sure you give the program all the tools to be successful."

Georgia State and Old Dominion are in the Colonial next season, but league bylaws prohibit their participation in the conference tournament. Towson and UNC Wilmington are ineligible for the tournament based on poor academic scores; Towson is appealing.

At this juncture, unless something changes, only seven schools would be eligible for the conference tournament in 2013.

O'Connor said the bylaw preventing Old Dominion and Georgia State from postseason participation should be changed when the league meets next week.

"My philosophy is that we should let the student-athletes play in championships," O'Connor said. "I think we can have conversations about our bylaws in the CAA."

O'Connor said there should be discussion about suspending or doing away with the rule altogether. He said the bylaw was put in place 10 years ago but "the world has changed in a lot of different ways. Student-athletes should have an opportunity to participate in championships."

If the membership can resolve the tournament issue, that might be the first step in trying to move ahead as one conference thinking about each other rather than the individual interests.

The CAA has to stick together at this point, or it will quickly fade from relevance.

Saint Mary's, Murray State, Creighton, Long Beach State and Wichita State have all been receiving the necessary pre-BracketBusters buzz.

But Drexel may end up having the most important game of the weekend.

The Dragons are tied with George Mason for first place at 14-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Drexel (22-5 overall) has been one of the hottest teams in the country, losing just once since Dec. 3 (by 14 at Georgia State). That's 14 straight wins and 20 out of 21.

Drexel is at Cleveland State on Saturday, the second-place team in the Horizon League behind Valparaiso.

If Drexel wins this road game, it will be akin to George Mason and VCU winning at Wichita State in the BracketBusters event in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Both teams received an at-large berth and ultimately went to the Final Four.

Drexel won't need an at-large berth if it wins the CAA tournament. But beating Cleveland State on the road will certainly help the résumé.

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Bruiser Flint
Christopher Szagola/US PresswireBruiser Flint's Drexel squad has won 20 of its past 21 games this season.

Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said he would be surprised if his team isn't in the NCAA tournament.

But Flint isn't denying this game could be decisive for the Dragons.

"The eye test is big for us in this BracketBusters game," Flint said. "We need to go out and play well and get a win. It's not going to be easy."

Flint said he received tongue-in-cheek text messages from former CAA coaches Tom Pecora (then of Hofstra and now of Fordham) and Jim Larranaga (then of George Mason and now of Miami) encouraging Flint to finally get a bid.

Drexel has been to the NCAA tournament before, but the Dragons would be breaking ground in the CAA. No former America East team (Hofstra, Towson, Drexel or Northeastern) has made the NCAA tournament since joining the CAA.

The only team not from the state of Virginia that has won the CAA is UNC Wilmington and former member Navy.

"It's been hard, since Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason have great tradition," Flint said. "Those teams are really good. They've been able to dominate the league. You've got to give them credit.

"But the championship and conference is in Richmond and VCU is down the street, so it's a home game and Old Dominion gets a great crowd," Flint said. "There has been a big three."

After being forced out at UMass, Flint bounced back and was hired right away at Drexel in the spring of 2001. He had an impossible task at UMass, following John Calipari in 1996 after a Final Four berth. Four years later, Flint had another tall order: take over a hometown school in Drexel. The Dragons have four NIT appearances under Flint, but no NCAA berths.

"I've been in this league now 11 years, and people don't realize that we have the fourth-most wins since the merger," Flint said. "Me and [ODU coach] Blaine Taylor are the only ones left since the merger. It's been a long process."

Flint said that when he took the job he had no idea the Dragons were moving into the CAA.

"I didn't expect this league to be as good as it turned out to be," Flint said. "It's a really, really good league."

Flint said the CAA has three really strong teams this season, mentioning Drexel in the same sentence as VCU and George Mason. The problem is that none of the teams stood out in the nonconference.

Drexel had injury problems but the defense never wavered. The offense, long an issue for the Dragons, is no longer stagnant.

"One thing we can do is score the ball," said Flint. "We've got guys who can score the ball."

The Dragons don't have a marquee nonconference win. The only Top 25 team they've played has been Virginia, in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 18 (Drexel lost 49-35).

The Dragons have plenty of options: Chris Fouch is healthy; Frantz Massenat is playing at a CAA Player of the Year level (the award should be his, Flint said); Damion Lee is on the perimeter, balancing out Samme Givens; and Dartaye Ruffin is on the inside.

Calipari, now the head coach at Kentucky, said Thursday that Flint should be coach of the year -- nationally.

"If we can be in the tournament," Flint said. "That would be special."

The quest for a bid could take a decided upward turn Saturday in Cleveland.

The atmosphere of the Carrier Classic, with its overwhelming sense of patriotism and the sheer uniqueness of playing a game on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, along with the historical significance of that vessel, will be hard to top.

The view was magnificent. The Naval presence in all its glory and uniformity was as impressive as one would imagine. And the appreciation from the sailors for the break from the daily routine was genuine.

If you missed that game or any of the matchups on opening weekend, you're in for a treat because you won't be able to turn on the ESPN family of networks from 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday until about 1 a.m. ET on Wednesday without seeing college basketball on the screen.

Here are some questions to ponder as the fourth annual Tip-Off Marathon begins with Washington State at Gonzaga and ends with an NIT Season Tip-Off game the following night from Stanford.

Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight AP Photo/Charles KrupaMike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight are tied atop the all-time wins list, but Krzyzewski could set the new mark against Michigan State at the Champions Classic.

1. Will Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski become the NCAA's all-time winningest coach? The Blue Devils play Michigan State in the first game at the Champions Classic (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) from Madison Square Garden. Duke struggled against Belmont in its opener and then blasted Presbyterian on Saturday. Neither result should come as a surprise. The Blue Devils are usually the home team in New York, but it will be interesting to see how many Spartans fans are able to make the trip, especially if some of them just went to San Diego. Still, Michigan State has a real shot to upstage Coach K. Despite their loss to North Carolina, the Spartans were the aggressor, outrebounding the Tar Heels convincingly 42-31. The Blue Devils have as much size as North Carolina, so the challenge will be similar. But MSU must shoot better from 3-point range than it did against UNC (2-of-20). Another key to the game is seeing which team converts timely perimeter shots. If Duke wins, we'll have the unique setting of Krzyzewski winning No. 903 and passing his former coach Bob Knight, who will sit courtside calling the game for ESPN.

2. How will the Thomas Robinson-Anthony Davis matchup unfold? This could turn out to be one of the more anticipated frontcourt showdowns during the nonconference schedule, as this individual battle highlights the second game of the Champions Classic between Kentucky and Kansas (ESPN, 9:30 ET). Robinson began the season as the go-to guy for Kansas, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds against Towson. Meanwhile, Davis, UK's highly touted freshman, blitzed Marist with 23 points and 10 boards in the Wildcats' 50-point rout. Kentucky has more options than KU and can lean on Doron Lamb or Terrence Jones to get it plenty of points. But the tussle between Robinson and Davis will be good theater throughout the night.

3. How will Ohio State's Aaron Craft and William Buford handle Florida's perimeter? We're not conceding the Jared Sullinger-Patric Young matchup (well, we will for these purposes), but this game may come down to the guards. Florida's set of Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Brad Beal and Erving Walker is off to a sensational start. Rosario scored 19 points off the bench, while Boynton scored 19 and Beal 14 (Walker added 10) in a rout of Jackson State. Craft and Buford will be tested defensively more so than they were a year ago, when Ohio State won easily at UF during this same event. The Buckeyes, who host the Gators at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2), are the No. 3 team in the nation because of Sullinger. But this will be the first time OSU may feel the loss of defensive specialist David Lighty.

4. Can Belmont emerge from the brutal opening weekend with a split? The Bruins nearly nipped Duke in a comeback that fell one possession short. The next challenge is a visit to in-state Memphis at noon ET on ESPN. Belmont won't have any awe factor in playing the Tigers. The Bruins should come into this game oozing with confidence after their showing versus the Blue Devils. Memphis is still a young team and a work in progress. The Tigers have more talent, but the question is whether they will show patience against a Belmont team that will want to run and run and run. This could be one of the most entertaining games of the day.

5. How will Baylor handle its one and likely only test during Perry Jones III's suspension? Jones must sit for three more games after accepting an extra benefit. The Bears beat Texas Southern on Friday and Jackson State on Sunday. The two games that follow Baylor's home matchup with San Diego State (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) are South Carolina State and Texas-Arlington. This is not the same Aztecs team from last season after the roster was gutted by graduating seniors and an early-entry NBA departure. Still, they are athletic enough to cause problems. The Bears have options with Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Anthony Jones, but this game should at least push Baylor a tad more than the first two did during Jones' suspension.

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Marquise Carter
James Snook/US PresswireGonzaga's Marquise Carter hopes to find his shooting stroke against Washington State.

6. How will Gonzaga's guards respond after a poor first outing? The Bulldogs showed in a tight win over Eastern Washington that they can rely heavily on Robert Sacre (22 points and 10 boards). But the perimeter shooters went 3-of-13 on 3s, and Marquise Carter was 2-of-11 and Mike Hart, Gary Bell, Kevin Pangos and David Stockton were a combined 6-of-15 from the field. Washington State is a team in transition, and the Zags should win this game. But Gonzaga has plenty of tougher challenges ahead, and so its guard play will need to improve. Still, this will be a good chance to see Sacre and Elias Harris on display against the Cougars, tipping off the Marathon at 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday night (ESPN).

7. As for the two women's games on the Marathon schedule …
How will Tennessee perform after coach Pat Summitt's health diagnosis? If you saw Robin Roberts' piece on "Good Morning America," you know it is clear that the Lady Vols are determined to win a national title for Summitt. The Tennessee coach also seems as driven as ever in her quest to keep coaching while she battles early-onset dementia. This should be an emotional game, as they all may turn out to be, for the No. 3 Lady Vols as they host No. 7 Miami (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET). And how will Texas A&M handle its status as the reigning champs? The Aggies aren't expected to repeat as national champs, but they have established themselves as an elite program. The primer to the Tennessee game won't involve as much theater, but may be as competitive a game when No. 9 Louisville goes to College Station to play the No. 6 Aggies (ESPNU, 4 p.m. ET).

8. What should we expect from Texas' Myck Kabongo? Kabongo is an impressive young man who handles himself with poise and class. Now he has to translate that onto the court against a talented Rhode Island squad that lost at George Mason by two points in its season opener Friday. The Longhorns will lean heavily on Kabongo to start the season. How he handles this first assignment will be a strong indicator on what to expect, as URI will push Texas from the outset (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET).

9. How will Drexel handle the hype as the CAA's favorite? The Dragons play at Rider (ESPN, 6 a.m. ET) when most people might be waking up to watch the Marathon. Drexel is the early pick to win the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference that's receiving some buzz after placing its second team (VCU) in the Final Four since 2006. Drexel will be minus the injured Chris Fouch, but Samme Givens and Frantz Massenat should be enough to beat Rider. But the Dragons could do themselves a service by looking impressive, too.

10. How productive can the Saint Mary's frontcourt be this season? Randy Bennett anticipates that this frontcourt will be more productive than the one led by Omar Samhan, who led the Gaels to the Sweet 16 two seasons ago. That means Rob Jones will be getting help from Kyle Rowley, Brad Waldow, Mitchell Young and Beau Levesque. Jones dominated Fresno Pacific with 25 points and 12 boards, but Northern Iowa -- coming off an impressive road route of ODU -- will be a much more formidable foe for the Gaels (ESPN, 2 a.m. ET).

11. What should we expect from LeBryan Nash? Well, if you believe the hype, Oklahoma State has an all-Big 12 player who can elevate it to the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys will likely have plenty of chances to feature Nash against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the NIT Season Tip-Off (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET).

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Kris Joseph
Richard Mackson/US PresswireIf Syracuse beats Manhattan on Monday, Kris Joseph and the Orange will face either Albany or Brown in the NIT Season Tip-Off.

12. How polished will Syracuse look? If they defeat Manhattan on Monday, the Orange will face either Albany or Brown on Tuesday (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The early indication is that this veteran team will be ready to compete for the Final Four. Of course, Syracuse isn't being challenged as much as some other teams, but the Orange smacked Fordham in the opener as Dion Waiters complemented Kris Joseph quite well.

13. A surprisingly close game? I'm going with Austin Peay at Cal (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). The Governors should be one of the favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference. Will Triggs and TyShwan Edmondson could play at any level. California is one of the Pac-12 favorites, but the Golden Bears will be tested in this CBE Classic matchup. Guards Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez will be tested versus Austin Peay.

14. What are the chances of a surprise to end the Marathon? I think Stanford will have a tough time with either SMU or Colorado State at home in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Mustangs or the Rams are fully capable of being a pest and upsetting the Cardinal (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET). Stanford first has to get past Fresno State, of course, to be in this matchup. To do that, Aaron Bright, Chasson Randle and Josh Owens will have to really take control.

15. How will Miami score inside? The Hurricanes are sans Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble due to injuries. The given has been that the Canes have the guard play with Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. But Rutgers will try and make Miami (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) beat the Scarlet Knights on the inside. This could turn out to be one of the closer games in the Marathon.

16. What should we expect from Villanova? This is somewhat of a blank slate. The Coreys -- Mr. Fisher and Mr. Stokes -- are gone. Maalik Wayns will be the dominant presence, but there are plenty of other options as Mouphtaou Yarou, JayVaughn Pinkston, Dominic Cheek and James Bell could all star against La Salle (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET). The Wildcats are an unknown in the Big East, and this game will at least give us a taste of what we may see.

17. Is Kevin Jones ready to be a star? For two seasons, West Virginia's Bob Huggins has been waiting for Jones to emerge. He scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a season-opening seven-point win over Oral Roberts. Kent State will hardly be a walk for the Mountaineers (ESPN, 10 a.m. ET). Darryl Bryant can offset Jones' production, but the offense will likely flow through Jones as he adapts to being the front man for the Mountaineers.

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Gib Arnold
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireGib Arnold's Warriors look to make a good first impression against Cal State-Northridge.

18. How ready is Hawaii to make a run at Utah State? Gib Arnold has gone through a complete roster makeover and coached the Warriors to an impressive 19-13 record in his first season in Honolulu. Utah State beat BYU to open the season while one of the WAC favorites, Nevada, was flat at home in losing to Missouri State. Hawaii has a real shot to make a move in its final season in the WAC before heading to the Big West. Establishing an identity in a new conference is always key and ensuring that Cal State-Northridge (ESPN, 4 a.m. ET) is well aware of what it is in for when it visits the Stan Sheriff Center would do wonders for a first impression.

19. What will Morehead State and College of Charleston look like after losing their stars? This game could be one of the more competitive because of who both teams lost, rather than who they gained. Morehead State no longer has Kenneth Faried, while Charleston is without Andrew Goudelock. The Eagles made the NCAA tournament last season, defeating Louisville and then falling to Richmond. The Cougars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to eventual champ Wichita State. Regardless of how these teams look (ESPN, 8 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, you can expect them both to be factors in their respective conferences by February.

20. What are the chances Virginia Tech doesn't end up in New York for the NIT semifinals? We'll find out Tuesday night. The Hokies will likely play George Mason, assuming the Patriots beat Florida International and Virginia Tech knocks off Monmouth on Monday. Mason beat Rhode Island by two in overtime in its opener, and while it is a more depleted roster than expected when Paul Hewitt took the job, this is still a formidable squad. Virginia Tech used balanced scoring to beat East Tennessee State by 11 in its opener, but hitting 5-of-18 on 3s was an indicator that the perimeter shooting may not be the Hokies' strong suit.

Other notable names to watch: Does Tu Holloway have a monster game for Xavier against IPFW (7 p.m. ET)? Will Cincinnati's Yancy Gates dominate against Jacksonville State (7 p.m. ET)? How will Harvard fare as the hunted team on the road, even against a rebuilding Holy Cross squad (7 p.m. ET)? How will Dayton's Archie Miller fare in his road debut as head coach at Miami-Ohio (7 p.m. ET)? Will Mike Scott be a double-double performer for Virginia against Winthrop (7 p.m. ET)? Will LSU avoid plunging into irrelevance by winning at Coastal Carolina (7 p.m. ET)? Will Butler avoid a shaky 0-2 start by winning at home against Chattanooga (7 p.m. ET)? Will Saint Louis prove to be the team projected as an A-10 contender and win games it should -- even on the road at Southern Illinois (8 p.m. ET)? Will Missouri State continue to win on the road and take down Arkansas State (8 p.m. ET)? How impressive will Royce White be for Iowa State against Drake (9 p.m. ET)? How will Wyoming play for new coach Larry Shyatt against Northern Colorado (9 p.m.)? Will Arizona State start its climb toward respectability by winning a game at home versus Pepperdine (8:30 p.m. ET)? Will Utah State follow up its BYU win by beating rival Weber State (9 p.m.) on the road?

Andy Katz is a senior writer for

At this time last year, Ben Hansbrough's name didn't appear on the Wooden Award preseason watch list.

Five months later, he edged out Connecticut's Kemba Walker for Big East Player of the Year.

Using that as a backdrop, let's remember that the list of 50 Wooden nominees is flawed, much like any of the award lists. The Wooden Award does not allow its voters to nominate any freshmen or transfers (either four-year or junior college) on their ballots.

And with college basketball as loaded with talent as any year since 2007-08, narrowing it down to 50 is not easy. So below I've attempted to come up with the names that didn't make it, either as "just missed the cut" omissions or just because they're freshmen or transfers. These guys aren't on the list (which can be found here), but might show up when it's updated during the season.

This group is by no means definitive, either. There's no telling who else might emerge nationally as the games get under way.

Let's take a look …

The omissions (in alphabetical order):

Julian Boyd, Long Island: The Blackbirds are the favorite again in the Northeast Conference and the main reason is because Boyd is back and ready to dominate the stat sheet.

D.J. Cooper, Ohio: The diminutive point guard does a little bit of everything; he averaged 15.8 ppg, 7.5 apg and 5.0 rpg for the Bobcats last season.

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Duke's Seth Curry
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSeth Curry hasn't done enough to warrant a mention on a preseason watch list, but he might end up being a Wooden addition.

Jared Cunningham, Oregon State: Cunningham has some of the best hops in the sport and a chance to be a Pac-12 star, allowing the Beavers to finally move up in the standings this season.

Seth Curry, Duke: Curry was a standout shooter for the Blue Devils on their trip to China and could be one of the top scorers on the team.

Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies was recently reinstated to the Cougars, and the offense is expected to flow through him inside and out as BYU mounts a campaign to win the WCC in its first year in the league.

Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: SMC coach Randy Bennett envisions this as one of the best teams he's ever had, but a lot of that will have to do with whether Dellavedova can shoot like Mickey McConnell did last season.

Greg Echenique, Creighton: Echenique was a rebounding force for Venezuela this summer and should do even more for the Bluejays with a full season to work with.

TyShwan Edmondson, Austin Peay: The Governors should be the favorite in the Ohio Valley with a legit scorer like Edmondson, who has a strong man, Will Triggs, to take pressure off him.

Kyle Fogg, Arizona: Fogg is next in line to assume a leadership position for the Wildcats, who are in a position to compete for Pac-12 titles for years to come.

Kevin Foster, Santa Clara: As a sophomore, Foster sort of came out of nowhere to average 20.2 ppg and become one of the nation's top 3-point shooters.

Chris Gaston, Fordham: The Rams aren't any good, but the nation's leading returning rebounder (11.3 rpg) at least deserves a shout-out in this space.

Yancy Gates, Cincinnati: UC coach Mick Cronin said he'd be surprised if Gates wasn't one of the 10 names on the Big East preseason first team.

Malcolm Grant, Miami (Fla.): The Hurricanes have to play most of the season without big man Reggie Johnson, so Grant will have more opportunities to shine.

Rob Jones, Saint Mary's: Jones could be a double-double regular for the Gaels, and for Saint Mary's to win the WCC, Jones will have to be a star.

Doron Lamb, Kentucky: John Calipari says Lamb will be the Wildcats' best player. Just Coach Cal mind games, or the truth?

Meyers Leonard, Illinois: Leonard didn't contribute a whole lot as a freshman, but he was a hidden gem on the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia this summer. The Illini are expecting big things out of him.

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: McCollum is the nation's leading returning scorer (21.8 ppg) and is in the top five in steals (2.5 spg). Oh, and he did that as a freshman. What more do you need to know?

Cameron Moore, UAB: The Blazers have been consistently good under Mike Davis and have had unheralded C-USA stars. Moore is the latest.

Toure' Murry, Wichita State: If the Shockers win the Missouri Valley over Creighton, a lot of the credit will end up going to the veteran Murry.

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Ryan Pearson
Rafael Suanes/US PresswireRyan Pearson looks to lead Mason to another run to the NCAAs.

Brandon Paul, Illinois: Illini coach Bruce Weber was a bit surprised Paul didn't crack the top 50 on the Wooden list, given his overall importance to this team.

Ryan Pearson, George Mason: The Patriots are a trendy pick for the Top 25 and a lot of that has to do with the versatility of Pearson.

Damier Pitts, Marshall: The Thundering Herd are a real sleeper to gain an NCAA tourney berth out of Conference USA in large part because of Pitts.

Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope has come back from multiple life-threatening situations and has a real shot as a senior to put it all together and finally shine.

Terrence Ross, Washington: The Huskies can't be dismissed as a major player for the Pac-12 title, and if they win it, Ross will be a significant reason why.

Robert Sacre, Gonzaga: Sacre has matured into a solid post player, and that progress shows no signs of stopping as the Zags once again compete for the West Coast title.

Mike Scott, Virginia: If the sleeper Cavs mount a run to the NCAA tournament, the oft-injured Scott will be the reason why.

Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: If Sidney is in shape and plays up to his potential, he has SEC Player of the Year potential and could be the difference between the Bulldogs making the NCAAs or NIT.

Andrew Smith, Butler: The Bulldogs will have fewer stars this season, but Smith has a chance to outshine Khyle Marshall and newcomer Roosevelt Jones with his scoring prowess in the post.

Chace Stanback, UNLV: Stanback's suspension to start the season is only one game, so that won't diminish his ability to lead the Rebels in their hunt for a Mountain West title.

Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic: FAU quietly won the Sun Belt East Division last season and Mike Jarvis' diminutive point guard was the catalyst behind the regular-season championship.

Hollis Thompson, Georgetown: If the Hoyas are to make the NCAA tournament again and be a pest in the upper half of the Big East, then Thompson needs a breakout season.

Kyle Weems, Missouri State: Doug McDermott is the one everyone is talking about in the Valley, but let's not forget that Weems is the reigning MVC Player of the Year. Too bad for the Bears he's their only returning starter.

Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The sophomore guard was the leading scorer in four postseason NIT games for the Lobos and should only get better with the addition of Australian Hugh Greenwood.

The transfers

Dewayne Dedmon, USC: Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill firmly believes this JC transfer is an NBA talent who could dominate the post and average a double-double for SC.

Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: The former UTEP big man is ready to have a bust-out season for a team that has serious bounce-back potential after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign.

Mike Rosario, Florida: The former Rutgers scoring guard finally has plenty of support around him and will put up numbers for a winner.

Rakim Sanders, Fairfield: The Boston College transfer should flourish after dropping down a level, and he should get coach Sydney Johnson another trip to the NCAA tourney. Johnson is beginning his first year at Fairfield after leading Princeton to the 2011 tourney.

Royce White, Iowa State: White is finally ready to be a star on the college scene after multiple transgressions at Minnesota.

Brandon Wood, Michigan State: The Spartans picked up a rare senior transfer (taking advantage of the graduate transfer rule) from Valparaiso who could be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten.

Tony Woods, Oregon: The embattled Woods arrived from Wake Forest after legal issues and has a chance to really shine as a double-double player for the first time in his career.

The freshmen

Bradley Beal, Florida: Beal has a chance to be a productive player in a frontcourt that has a vacuum after multiple seniors departed.

Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga: Coach Mark Few has been anticipating Bell's arrival for over a year now. He's expected to step in and deliver right away.

Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: The Cardinals fancy themselves a Big East title contender, and that's partly because they consider Blackshear a star in the making.

Jabari Brown, Oregon: Brown was the star of the Ducks' trip to Italy with his scoring prowess, and expect that to continue in the Pac-12.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: There is some question right now as to Carson's eligibility, but if he's good to go, the Sun Devils might become relevant in the Pac-12 again.

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Anthony Davis
Brendan NolanThere seems to be little doubt that freshman Anthony Davis will have a major impact for UK.

Erik Copes, George Mason: Copes was bound for George Washington before Karl Hobbs was fired; now he'll be a headline performer for the Patriots and first-year coach Paul Hewitt.

Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Davis has a chance to be the SEC Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, so expect him to be on the midseason list when freshmen are allowed.

Andre Drummond, Connecticut: He will be an immediate star and help lift the Huskies into the national title chase again. He's more than likely a future top-five pick in the NBA.

Myck Kabongo, Texas: Coach Rick Barnes has had quite a bit of success with big-time freshmen guards, and Kabongo is next in line.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Gilchrist will be another star on what will be a headline team throughout the season.

Johnny O'Bryant, LSU: Coach Trent Johnson needs the Tigers to start trending upward again, and he has a shot with the arrival of the big man from Mississippi.

LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State: OSU is a bit of a mystery team in the Big 12, but the All-American from Dallas could push the Cowboys into contention.

Austin Rivers, Duke: Rivers will have the ball in his hands quite a bit and appears to be the next Duke star in a lengthy list of recognizable names.

Josiah Turner, Arizona: The Wildcats will win the Pac-12 regular-season title if Turner is as good as advertised.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: If coach Tom Crean is going to turn the Hoosiers into a relevant team this season, it will be because of Zeller and his impact in the Big Ten.

The Colonial Athletic Association buzz is at an all-time high.

VCU went to the Final Four last season.

George Mason went in 2006.

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Jamie Skeen
AP PhotoVCU went to the Final Four last season as a No. 11 seed.

The conference has put two more teams in the Final Four in the past six seasons than every other league outside the power six, although Memphis went from Conference USA in 2008 and Butler represented the Horizon League the past two years.

But the CAA still hasn't solved its provincial problem. The Virginia-based league hasn't had a team outside the state win the regular-season conference title since UNC Wilmington in 2006, and outside of Wilmington capturing the title four times since 2000, no other team outside Virginia has won the title since former member Navy did in 1987.

Look deeper at the stats, and you'll see that no Northern team has won the conference, either, unless you're going to count Navy's three-year title run from 1985-87 as a team from the North because it's in Annapolis, Md.

Granted, the conference is made up of five teams from Virginia, so that tilts the odds in the favor of the state. But the former America East schools -- Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra, Northeastern and Towson -- that arrived to change the demographic of the Colonial in the middle of the past decade haven't been able to crack through and earn a regular-season CAA title or a conference tournament championship.

That has to change for the CAA to truly be looked at as a game-changing conference, not just a collection of strong schools at the top with VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion as the most consistent players.

"It's pretty much been a steady three of late with VCU, Old Dominion and Mason," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "We've been more consistent than them, but we just don't have a Final Four run."

And if there is a chance that a Northern team can finally break through this year, the one candidate is Drexel if it can knock off favorite George Mason.

"Northern teams have always been in the mix, but it's been tough to win it," Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. "I think Bruiser [Flint] and Drexel have a chance. Drexel does two things terrific every game. They are outstanding defensively and one of the best teams in the country in rebounding. If you're going to separate yourself, it will come down to someone making a play at the end of the game, and in this league, typically you have to have upperclassmen to win it."

VCU had a strong senior class last season led by Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen. Mason had an upperclassman-dominated team in 2006. ODU, which finished second to Mason last season, had a senior-dominated lineup.

Drexel didn't. The Dragons finished one game behind VCU and lost by two points in the CAA quarterfinals to the Rams.

"If VCU doesn't win that game they probably don't get a bid and ultimately go to the Final Four," Taylor said. "Drexel will be quite good this year. The thing that separates our league from other BCS conferences is that we have a lot of seniors or upperclassmen."

Drexel actually has more of a mix this season, but that could be enough with sophomores Dartaye Ruffin and Frantz Massenat complementing juniors Chris Fouch and Derrick Thomas and senior Samme Givens.

"We were one of the younger teams in the league last season and we won games," Flint said. "But we essentially return everybody."

The problem for the CAA is still a perception-based issue. Drexel won at Louisville last season, won 21 games and lost out to fellow member Hofstra for the College Basketball Invitational bid out of the CAA. James Madison, which finished behind Drexel, also received a CBI bid. The CAA had no NIT teams. Drexel didn't have any other postseason opportunities.

"VCU came in fourth in our league, and people forget that," Flint said. "Our conference doesn't get the respect it deserves. We're good, but we won't surprise anybody."

Flint didn't take any one-way guarantees this season and that will hurt the Dragons. Two seasons ago, the Dragons played at Syracuse and at Louisville last season -- splitting the two games.

Drexel has a soft schedule with games against still-struggling Saint Joseph's, likely second-place Ivy Princeton, Binghamton and St. Francis (Pa). Flint said he didn't want to add more guarantee games like last season because he had only three home games slated originally. A year ago, Drexel played only four nonconference home games. That puts even more pressure on the Dragons to do well in the Paradise Jam, in which the Dragons could get a chance to play upstart Virginia in their bracket, then possibly Marquette on the other side -- two possible NCAA tournament teams. Flint said he's working on a deal to play co-MAAC favorite Fairfield.

"We understand that to win this league you may have to go 16-2, but we're in the same boat as Mason was last year," Flint said. "We'll see. I'm not going to fool myself. The expectations are high for us. We can't let games get away from us. We want to be the first team not from Virginia, not Wilmington, to win a championship."

Paul Hewitt sat inside a Savannah, Ga., hearing room with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions on April 15, unemployed and waiting to defend himself against a possible major violation that had been tagged under his watch at Georgia Tech.

But he never got a chance to speak.

There are conflicting reports as to why. A source close to COI chair Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, said he never told Hewitt he couldn't talk during the hearing. But at least two sources who were in the room told that Thomas said to them Hewitt didn't need to speak since he wasn't mentioned in the case and wasn't in jeopardy.

The thrust of the hearing was based on Yellow Jackets football and whether the school should have declared receiver Demaryius Thomas ineligible after he accepted $312 worth of clothing in 2009 from former Tech quarterback Calvin Booker, who had been working for a sports agent at the time.

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Paul Hewitt
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswirePaul Hewitt was fired after 11 seasons in Atlanta.

The sources said Hewitt was told by Dennis Thomas to sit there and not say anything since there were no penalties assessed to him. Yet, Georgia Tech had offered up to the COI a one-game suspension of Hewitt, even though it had fired him the previous month. The COI never dealt with the one-game penalty and didn't asses it. Hewitt never spoke during the hearing and neither did his attorney.

According to one source, Georgia Tech focused its attention on defending the football allegations and didn't pay as much attention to basketball. Hewitt was already gone. And the reaction from the school was that the sanctions were likely to be secondary in nature.

Hoops was more of an add-on to the football violations as the basketball focus group was looking into the camp that was conducted on Georgia Tech's campus. The finding was that the Yellow Jackets held an on-campus camp in May 2009 and that the program's academic advisor at the time, former player Jon Babul, was taking notes. Hewitt and his assistants were not at the camp.

The other issue Hewitt and his attorney, Stu Brown, had with the charge was that the rule put in place about the event came about during an NCAA session on Oct. 29, 2009, several months after Georgia Tech's camp.

Hewitt didn't receive any penalty from the COI and it didn't seem to affect his reputation much considering George Mason hired him as head coach just two weeks later. Still, the COI hit the men's basketball program currently being run by former Dayton coach Brian Gregory with a reduction of two recruiting days and four official visits over a two-year period. There were no phone call, off-campus recruiting or scholarship reductions from the hearing.

All of this adds up to more of a secondary penalty. The football program had to vacate the 2009 ACC championship and the athletic department was levied a $100,000 fine, but the damage to men's basketball is minimal at best, so this likely won't stick to Hewitt in the years to come.

Still, there is a stigma attached to a major violation under your watch.

"I'm disappointed,'' Hewitt said. "We have a difference of opinion of what happened.''

Hewitt said when LuAnn Humphrey of the NCAA enforcement staff spoke at the ACC meetings in May 2010, he realized that there might be a potential violation. He said that's when the questions started from the NCAA.

"Now my name is tied to a major violation penalty,'' said Hewitt. "It bothers me that my name is tied to a major violation that in May of 2009 wasn't in place.''

Hewitt said he wasn't on campus during the event and said there was no contact with his staff during the event. The enforcement staff charged that in May of 2009 and 2010 the event was run and operated by the program's graduate assistant. Georgia Tech and the NCAA agreed on the facts but not on the type of infractions. Tech called it secondary while the NCAA deemed it major.

The other secondary violation listed was the 10 impermissible tickets that were left by the men's basketball staff. The tickets became a violation, according to the NCAA, when they were left for people who had activity with possible student-athletes. According to multiple sources, the tickets were left for former players Matt Harpring, James Forrest and Dion Glover, who had been working out with kids who were 12 and 13 years old.

It has certainly been an eventful spring for Hewitt. He was fired. He went before the COI but didn't speak. He was hired at George Mason. He then left for a month to coach the USA U-19 World Championship team through the trials in Colorado Springs and into the tournament in Latvia, where the team finished fifth.

Now he'll be on the road next week for the final 10 days of the July evaluation period.

"We had a great group of guys,'' Hewitt said of the USA team. "We had that one game where we didn't shoot well, going 0-for-9 on 3s. There will be benefits in the long run. Everyone that went through it made an incredible sacrifice.''

Hewitt said he regretted that the Americans weren't able to play Lithuania for the gold medal in a raucous road environment in neighboring Riga, Latvia. USA had lost to the Lithuanians in an exhibition but then beat them during pool play.

"We didn't get that chance to play them in that crowd,'' Hewitt said of the eventual gold-medal winners. "I'm not sure we would have beaten them, but I like our chances.''

Hewitt said one of the toughest breaks for the Americans was losing Cal's Allen Crabbe during the trials to a broken nose and concussion. He said as soon as that happened and Crabbe was deemed unable to go on the trip, he knew shooting was going to be an issue for the team.

"I remember sitting there with Randy Bennett [assistant coach on the team and head coach at Saint Mary's] and saying, 'Damn, I hope it's not serious,''' Hewitt said. "He would have made the team. I think coming in he and [Creighton's Doug] McDermott were the best 3-point shooters.''

Hewitt said outside of the obvious choices of McDermott, Joe Jackson (Memphis), Patric Young (Florida) and Jeremy Lamb (Connecticut), he said he could see Meyers Leonard of Illinois having a breakout season after his play with Team USA.

"He's got a lot of potential,'' Hewitt said. "He's athletic. He can shoot the 15-foot shot. He can block shots. He runs well.''

As for his Patriots? George Mason is the predicted favorite in the CAA and added a major impact player in Erik Copes, a top-50 recruit who originally signed with George Washington before Karl Hobbs was fired.

"He's here, he's all set and he's ready to go,'' Hewitt said.

Jim Larranaga wasn't thinking about leaving George Mason until president Alan Merten, his best friend at the school, told him he was retiring in late March, just days before Larranaga left for the Final Four in Houston.

And even then, Larranaga wasn't convinced there was a spot to land. He wasn't going to bolt on the program he had built over the past 14 years. He could have done that three years ago when the coaching job at Providence, his alma mater, was open.

"That's when I decided to start to assess if this is where I was going to be for the rest of my career,'' said Larranaga, 61, of Merten's decision.

Larranaga got a few calls from friends who had connections to the Miami job, which opened while he was in Houston after Missouri tabbed Frank Haith to replace Mike Anderson as its coach. "But I thought they'd hire Frank Martin,'' Larranaga said of the Kansas State coach and Miami native.

Larranaga's agent, Mark Carmony, called and told him there was interest from Miami. So Larranaga listened and then interviewed in Boston, just an hour after Harvard's Tommy Amaker did on April 11.

Amaker said no to the Hurricanes. Larranaga heard nothing. Miami then hired Shawn Eichorst as its athletic director. He was previously an assistant athletic director from Wisconsin.

The assumption was that Eichorst would turn to Milwaukee's Rob Jeter, a connection from the state of Wisconsin. Eichorst did talk to him. But it never got too serious. Suddenly, there was a renewed interest in Larranaga from Eichorst and Miami president Donna Shalala after the AD heard how well Larranaga had interviewed.

"And then by Wednesday [a day after Eichorst had been hired on April 12], I was the No. 1 candidate and there was an offer,'' Larranaga said.

The official hire of Larranaga came 11 days after he first interviewed in Boston. During that time, he wrestled as to whether he should leave Mason. He firmly believed at one point that he wasn't even the top choice. He was convinced that Martin was going to get the job, even though Miami never showed interest in him for whatever reason.

"Jim was upfront with me the whole time,'' George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "I was hoping that he would stay. But I always felt that at any level Jim could coach, in the ACC, Big East, it wouldn't matter, he would be successful.''

O'Connor did what he could financially. Miami offered more and a five-year contract. But ultimately, Larranaga said the decision to accept Miami's offer was about his uncertainty on Mason's future without Merten. O'Connor always had his back, but Larranaga was intrigued by the challenge.

If there were ever a time to get into the ACC, it is now. Duke and North Carolina are the standard, as has been the case for decades now. But more than half the league is in flux. Gary Williams (Maryland), Leonard Hamilton (Florida State) and Seth Greenberg (Virginia Tech) are the only coaches (other than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams) who have been at their school for more than two seasons, respectively. None has been a consistent NCAA team of late, as all have been out of the field or sweating plenty on Selection Sunday.

The rest of the league has had a complete turnover in the past two seasons. If Miami can keep forward Reggie Johnson from staying in the draft over the next week, and with the return of guards Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant, then there is no reason why the Hurricanes can't be competitive and in the ACC's top five next season.

If you were to compare Larranaga's last two options of leaving Mason -- Providence versus Miami -- it's not close. He made the right choice. The Friars are near the bottom of the Big East with plenty of disadvantages in the region, including a much, tougher, more competitive conference from top to bottom.

Larranaga's age shouldn't be a deterrent. He has plenty of energy. And as O'Connor said, he had the "total package,'' from tactical to motivation to enthusiasm to outreach to make a program successful.

And that's why leaving Mason was a tough call. He is leaving behind a Top 25 team next season, which will be one of the best at the school or at least comparable to the 2006 Final Four team. The Patriots lose two key players -- Cam Long and Isaiah Tate -- but return everyone else off the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season championship roster and second-round NCAA winner over Villanova. Ryan Pearson should enter the CAA as a possible conference player-of-the-year favorite. Sherrod Wright is expected to be healthy, too, after sitting out with a shoulder injury. That alone should bolster the team's chances.

"We've got four or five starters returning and a lot of guys with three years experience,'' Larranaga said. "We won 27 games with that team this past season, and we could be even better next year.''

But Larranaga wasn't sure where the leadership would turn above him in the next five to seven years. The Miami job presented a unique opportunity, and he took it once it ultimately came his way.

O'Connor now has to replace him. There are only a handful of head-coaching openings remaining. Even if there were more, Mason would be one of the best jobs outside of a power six. And you can argue that, except for the financial end of a Big East job like Providence, Mason is a better gig.

"Jim gave us the foundation, and there's no question that we are eternally grateful,'' O'Connor said. "We have a top 25 job, and that includes the BCS schools.''

Facilities aren't an issue. Mason lies in a fertile recruiting area. The CAA is experiencing a renaissance with VCU reaching the Final Four -- the second conference team to do so since 2006 after Mason's miraculous run. Old Dominion's Blaine Taylor has been wooed, most recently by Wyoming, and chose to stay put. VCU's Shaka Smart stayed despite the possibility of landing at NC State. Drexel's Bruiser Flint has been a consistent winner. Towson and Georgia State lured two coaches who desperately wanted in the league in Pitt assistant Pat Skerry and IUPUI head coach Ron Hunter.

"We've got everything in place,'' O'Connor said.

Whoever lands the Mason gig will have a team ready to win for next season and beyond.

Larranaga's move was precipitated by his president's desire to retire. Miami then had to sift through its own search process of seeking Amaker, dismissing the thought of pursuing Martin, and then finding a match in Larranaga.

These searches don't always end up the way they start. But in the case of Miami, it found someone who was willing to move, who had oodles of experience and can help the team win immediately.

O'Connor will seek the same result. He said he has a list of 30 names. He will whittle them down this week. O'Connor is a basketball lifer, from being a head coach to a chair on the men's basketball selection committee. He knows he has a sweet coaching gig to offer, a job where someone can win now.

Replacing Larranaga won't be an easy chore. But if O'Connor gets it right, Mason may not miss a beat. The foundation is in place, but more than that, the players are returning to continue a winning tradition.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga didn't group this week's road games together as any more important than a pair earlier this season.

But I will.

The Patriots' 20-point win at VCU on Tuesday was quite a statement to the rest of the Colonial Athletic Association and the NCAA tournament selection committee.

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Jim Larranaga
Tim G. Zechar / Icon SMIJim Larranaga's George Mason team is in control of the CAA standings with a two-game lead.

Beat Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Saturday in BracketBusters and the Patriots can likely book an at-large berth. But there's no reason to stop there. The Patriots (22-5, 14-2 CAA) end with Northeastern and at Georgia State before likely riding into the CAA tournament in Richmond as conference champs with a 15-game win streak.

That's the kind of momentum, save two losses to stubborn and quite frankly deserving of a bid Hofstra, that Mason was on in 2006 en route to an improbable Final Four run.

"I have found that this team has the ability to concentrate on one game," Larranaga said. "We don't talk about what's at stake, our RPI or where we stand in the league. All we're dealing with is how we beat this team and our guys have been focused."

The Patriots are a defensive-minded team, with only one blip since New Year's when Hofstra lit up Mason for 87 points on Long Island on Jan. 5. Only one other opponent has scored more than 69 points since then and that was James Madison at home -- in a 75-73 loss to the Patriots on Jan. 22. Old Dominion, which has a decent profile itself for a possible at-large, scored only 45 points in a 62-45 loss Feb. 5 after beating Mason 69-65 on Jan. 8.

"We've been hard to beat the way we've defended and rebounded," Larranaga said. VCU was 5-of-19 on 3s, shot just 37 percent and was outrebounded by the Patriots on Tuesday. "We have had a consistent and solid effort and execution."

There are no players left at Mason from the Final Four team. But seniors Cam Long and Isaiah Tate were recruited to come to Mason in the year after the Final Four. Long is the lead guard for the Patriots and Tate a key contributor off the bench. Ryan Pearson, the team's best all-around player and potential double-double forward, is a junior and further removed from the Final Four euphoria.

Larranaga isn't going to draw the comparisons to 2006. They are different teams, making unique runs. But there are similarities which can be hard to ignore.

Mason went on the road for a BracketBusters game five years ago and won at Wichita State, giving the Patriots another quality road win late in February. The same could occur at Northern Iowa on Saturday.

Larranaga did say that the two teams have plenty of shooters and the ability to stretch the defense. He added that the defense, rebounding and field goal percentage defense are similar, too.

"But the focus is to stay in the present and prepare for Northern Iowa," Larranaga said. "Being on a roll means your confidence grows, and as you put together a series of victories the team believes more in your system of what works."

Mason hadn't dealt with a pressing team for 40 minutes prior to VCU. Mason turned the ball over 11 times and the Rams had 11 steals.

"We reacted very well, we defended, rebounded and shared the ball," Larranaga said. "The year after the Final Four I thought we'd get back [to the tournament] but the chemistry wasn't good. It took a while to get the young guys to believe in the system. Once they did, we got back in the tournament."

Mason was 18-15, 9-9 in '07, back in the dance in '08 with a 23-10 record (12-6 CAA) before losing to Notre Dame in the first round, out in the first round of the NIT in '09 with a loss to Penn State and a 22-11 record (13-5 CAA), and then out of the CIT with an overtime loss against Fairfield to end last season at 17-15 (12-6 CAA).

"What did it for us this year was going to Italy for 10 days in August, that made a huge difference," Larranaga said. "This will be a great game [against UNI]. A month ago you had no idea what would happen when the games were chosen. These are great opportunities for teams like ourselves in the CAA and the Missouri Valley -- to get national exposure at the most opportune time."

And if Mason were to sweep this road week, the Patriots should be on the committee's radar even more as a team to pencil into the field and one that could be a threat to upset the bracket.

Siena is in the midst of a three-game road swing and is currently without its best player, Edwin Ubiles, who is out with a shoulder injury.

If the Saints, who are cruising in the MAAC with a 10-0 record, can survive this stretch -- let alone another five-game string against upstart Iona and Fairfield at home and Niagara, Canisius and Rider on the road -- still unbeaten in the league, then the BracketBusters opponent on either Feb. 19 or 20 will be even more important to the Saints' NCAA at-large hopes.

It's essentially Butler or bust.

If the Saints can win this week (at St. Peter's Thursday and at Marist on Saturday), there's a very good chance the Saints will be Butler's opponent in the highest-profile BracketBusters game. Matchups will be made this weekend so teams have a few weeks to deal with travel and scouting.

The concept has done wonders for some and been irrelevant for others, but one thing is certain: Teams that have an outside shot at an NCAA tourney at-large or are looking for a seed boost once they qualify as an automatic can't go wrong with another quality nonconference game in late February.

Some teams won't get that chance. The West Coast Conference isn't participating in the event and there are some omissions from other conferences like the Summit (only Oral Roberts and not Oakland), the America East (no Maine), the Big Sky (served up only Montana State and not Northern Colorado or Weber State).

There are 98 teams involved in 49 games during BracketBusters. The 11 games that will air on the ESPN family of networks are determined first and then the conference commissioners will pair up the remaining 76 teams.

Home and road teams are already set for the event, so it's a bit difficult to maneuver who can go where. But the most important aspect of matching teams should be done based on who has a shot to be in the field. Not all of the 22 set teams are in that group. Actually, maybe only six could have an outside shot at an at-large.

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Fran McCaffery
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonFran McCaffery is hoping BracketBusters provides a way to boost his team's NCAA at-large chances.

Siena is one of them.

"It's going to mean something and I would say if we could have a phenomenal league record and beat Butler and then not lose until the finals of the [MAAC] then we'd have a shot," said Siena coach Fran McCaffery. "We'll be right there in that discussion, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and assume the next five or six games."

McCaffery would actually be in favor of holding off on announcing the BracketBusters matchups until a few more weeks. But nevertheless, he still wants that Butler game. From a storyline perspective, it makes sense. Those are two of the better-known programs in the field and each has had some NCAA tournament success (Siena has won its last two first-round games).

"We're hoping we can put ourselves in position to get an at-large bid," McCaffery said. The problem for the Saints will be the six games prior to a possible showdown with Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Ubiles didn't play against Manhattan on Jan. 18, played 33 minutes in a win over Loyola (Md.) on Jan. 21, but then missed the road game at Manhattan on Sunday. Meanwhile, guard Kyle Downey, who scored 16 points in Ubiles' absence in the first Manhattan game, broke his foot and is now out, possibly for the season.

"We're short-handed for this tough stretch, but I know we have to keep winning," said McCaffery.

Siena did beat Northeastern early in the season for what might turn out to be a solid win. It was a game McCaffery said was scheduled because "nobody wanted to play us and nobody wanted to play them and we're two hours away." But losses to Temple, St. John's, Georgia Tech and Northern Iowa were the supposed "up" games that the Saints failed to win.

Meanwhile, Butler has been rolling in the Horizon at 9-0 with a 16-4 record overall. That mark includes a win at Northwestern and home victories against Ohio State (without Evan Turner) and Xavier. Playing Clemson on a neutral court and UAB on the road (both losses) will help the power rating.

A year ago, Butler coach Brad Stevens said beating Davidson on the road was a key win for helping the Bulldogs get an at-large bid after losing to eventual champ Cleveland State in the conference tournament.

"We were coming off two losses that week before the Davidson game," Stevens said. "And you don't want to be on a losing streak at that time of the year. Doubt starts to creep in. That was a good win that got us going in the right direction."

Stevens knows the Bulldogs will get a quality BracketBusters opponent as the premier home team. There was a time when the staff was anticipating Wichita State as a possible opponent, but two losses last week for the Shockers have led to a belief that it could be Siena. Louisiana Tech, which tops the WAC, is also a possibility, but the name value of a Siena-Butler matchup may have more cachet.

The Bulldogs are handling their business in the Horizon as they become the top draw in every opposing building. That won't change as the Bulldogs go to Green Bay on Friday (ESPNU, 9 ET) and then to Milwaukee, two places the Bulldogs lost last season.

With Matt Howard staying out of foul trouble in the league after being in it throughout the nonconference, the Bulldogs are getting more of a complete effort. Gordon Hayward has been a Horizon MVP and barring a complete collapse, the Bulldogs are in good shape as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned.

Joining Butler as a BracketBusters home squad is Northern Iowa (8-1, 17-2), which leads the Missouri Valley. But Siena has already played Northern Iowa (the Panthers won 82-65) and that's why it makes more sense to send Siena to Butler and Louisiana Tech to Northern Iowa. The latter matchup may not seem headline-worthy to the mainstream fan, but these are the leaders in the WAC and MVC and both teams are talented enough to win a first-round NCAA tournament game.

If you were to pit Siena-Butler and Louisiana Tech-Northern Iowa, you'd likely have four teams that are going to be in the field of 65 matching up a few weeks before Selection Sunday.

The other hot teams are in the Colonial, but they obviously can't go up against each other. Northeastern, Old Dominion, George Mason and William & Mary all could be in play for the CAA's automatic bid with the Tribe the most likely at-large candidate because of nonconference wins over Wake Forest and Maryland on the road and Richmond at home.

That's why the question of who will play at GMU and Northeastern and where ODU and William & Mary will play during BracketBusters will be a fluid process this week.

I'd like to see the following: Wichita State at Northeastern as two of the top teams in the MVC and CAA; William & Mary hitting the road to play the best team in the Ohio Valley (Murray State); ODU traveling to Green Bay, pitting one of the top teams in the CAA against the second-best in the Horizon; and Charleston, which took out North Carolina, makes sense at George Mason in a matchup of two of the best from the Southern and CAA.

"We need a good game," said Northeastern coach Bill Coen, whose Huskies have won 11 games in a row, the third-longest streak in the country. "We've used all our mulligans and probably need to stay perfect the rest of the way to get an at-large berth. But in the spirit of the BracketBusters, we'd like to play our way into the conversation."

Northeastern failed to win games in the nonconference against potential NCAA teams Siena, Rhode Island and Saint Mary's before a humbling loss to Western Michigan in Honolulu on Dec. 23 -- its last loss -- set the team straight.

"It was good for us to be on the road because we had to take a hard look at ourselves," Coen said. "It was like a foreign tour. We were together all the time and had to go eat together breakfast, lunch and dinner and figure it out."

What happened was Northeastern got back to defending and Chaisson Allen started to play the point like Coen expected, teaming up with potential CAA Player of the Year Matt Janning.

Now Coen says the Huskies are cheering for a BracketBusters game "that will help us the most."

They're not alone.