Mason's Final Four run has helped smaller schools - a little
By Michael Marot
Jim Larranaga still talks about George Mason's incredible Final Four run everywhere he goes - at fundraisers and camps, around coaches and especially when he's recruiting.
If last year's success has done anything, it has given Larranaga more credibility when he walks into a home. Prep players now are more willing to take calls and make unofficial visits, and no longer confuse the northern Virginia school with neighbors such as George Washington and James Madison.
To Larranaga, it's a small but necessary step in the endless quest to woo college prospects.
"It's nice because they recognize your face a little more, they recognize your name more and George Mason gets some name recognition now," he said after spending a few days at the Adidas camp in Atlanta.
Those who criticized conferences such as the Colonial Athletic and the Missouri Valley for getting multiple bids were proven wrong when Bradley and Wichita State reached the round of 16 and George Mason did the unthinkable by going all the way to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
The coaches association even cited those conferences' results when arguing for tournament expansion this summer.
For mid-major programs, such as George Mason, last year's tournament success has helped in recruiting, though it has not exactly been a boon.
While most top recruits still dream of playing for prominent programs, the next wave of recruits does appear more receptive to considering a mid-major. That's progress.
"I think the fringe guys used to wait it out a little longer to see if they could get to those (bigger) programs," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "Now they're more willing to make a commitment to a mid-major a little quicker."
Jacobson and others understand they likely never will be able to compete for players with powerhouses such as Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA.
But at last week's Nike All-America Camp, where 120 of the top prospects played, some players acknowledged that last year's tournament successes did get their attention.
Keenan Ellis, a 6-foot-10, 187-pound forward from Indiana, played last season at North College Hill in Cincinnati, where he was flanked by two of this year's top recruits - O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker.
He lists his final choices as Indiana, Tennessee and Alabama-Birmingham, where former Hoosiers coach Mike Davis landed.
Players say mid-majors do have some attractions: The potential to play early in their career and earn more minutes, and the opportunity to become a national darling, like George Mason, come tournament time.
"It makes you look at them differently when you see a school like George Mason going to the Final Four," Ellis said. "With mid-majors a lot of players look at them like, 'If you can't go high Division I, then you go to a mid-major so you can play."'
So far only one prominent player who attended the Nike camp - Chris Wright of Trotwood, Ohio - has committed to a smaller school. Wright, a 6-6, 211-pound forward, will attend Dayton in part so his mother can continue coming to games.
"It was hard at first, because I knew people would be saying 'Why go there?"' he said. "I just feel that everyone has to start somewhere and that no school that's big-time now was as good in the past as they are now."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber said that when he was at Southern Illinois, the staff's goal was to get one player each year from a premier summer basketball camp. That, he believed, could lead to maintaining success, something the Salukis have done despite losing two head coaches - Weber and Purdue's Matt Painter - to the Big Ten.
Gonzaga has been even more successful. Coach Mark Few acknowledges he's now winning recruiting battles he couldn't even get in on five years ago.
What changed? The Zags have become a perennial Top 25 team, appear routinely on national television and have elevated their status from strong mid-major to model program.
"It's a heck of a lot harder to stay at that level than when you make that first initial run," Few said. "That was all fun and games. ... There's no question we're doing better now and again it goes more with TV."
That's the next challenge for Larranaga and others.
Now that the Missouri Valley schools and George Mason have proven they can win in a high-profile, high-pressure environment, more players are willing to give them a chance. The question is whether they can win the big summer battles.
"If you're going up against a Big Ten or ACC school, you're still going to play second fiddle," Weber said. "There's no doubt our run at SIU helped and you have a chance to get maybe someone from the next group, but it's tough at that level."