G. Mason's Lewis catches eyes

Midway through his career at George Mason, Jai Lewis began to intrigue NFL scouts with his size and quickness.

A 6-foot-7, 295-pound load, the senior is now getting noticed for his jump shot, which will double his job prospects after he gets a degree in May. If an NFL franchise isn't willing to take a chance on Lewis, he will probably be able to find employment playing hoops in Europe.


That would bring Lewis full circle. An Army brat, he was born in Stuttgart, Germany, and settled in Aberdeen when he was 8. He played defensive end and tight end there in football, and teamed with Towson's Gary Neal, now a rival in the Colonial Athletic Association, on the Eagles' 2000 state championship basketball team.

After a year at Maine Central Institute, where his teammates included Texas point guard Kenton Paulino, Lewis landed at George Mason in 2002. He has been a rock on the block for the Patriots, earning first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore.


Heading into last night's game against William and Mary, Lewis was averaging 13.2 points and a career-high 8.6 rebounds, but what's most interesting is his three-point shooting. Lewis has cooled off this month, but he made 10 of 18 shots beyond the arc in November and December.

"I can't say enough about what Jai has meant to this program," coach Jim Larranaga said. "He's a tremendous back-to-the-basket player, and he's hard to double because he's a great passer out of the post, but now he's added that three-point shot. One of the things that's amazing about Jai is his quickness. You see a guy his size and think, 'He's got to be slow,' but he's not."

Larranaga said Lewis' girth, combined with the way he moves his feet and hands, is the reason a number of NFL scouts have seen Mason play.

Two factors have led to Lewis stepping out for the occasional three-pointer. He worked on his range, and Will Thomas worked on his body. A sophomore, Thomas weighed 214 pounds when he got out of Mount St. Joseph. Now he's up to 232 pounds. After averaging 5.7 points and 5.6 rebounds as a freshman, he's boosted those outputs to 10.7 and 6.7.

Seven of Larranaga's 14 players are from Maryland, and next year's freshman class will include another prospect from Mount St. Joseph, Louis Birdsong, a 6-6, 230-pound forward who's helped the Gaels to a perfect season.

CAA expansion means that Lewis and company won't play at Towson this winter. They do get the Tigers at home, on Feb. 11.

At-large blues

George Mason is home tomorrow (2 p.m.) against Old Dominion, in a CAA game that is as good as anything the Atlantic Coast Conference has to offer this weekend.


The Monarchs have beaten teams from the ACC (Virginia Tech), Big East (DePaul) and Southeastern (Georgia) conferences. In online replicas of the Rating Percentage Index, George Mason (No. 39) is above George Washington, Virginia and Kansas, but Larranaga isn't holding his breath.

If the CAA doesn't merit the first at-large NCAA berth in its history on selection Sunday, it never will. Its tournament champion hasn't won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1998, but it's come close.

Last year, ODU lost by eight to Michigan State, which got to the Final Four. Two years ago, Wake Forest beat Virginia Commonwealth by a point. Maryland needed a miracle from Drew Nicholas to beat UNC-Wilmington in 2003, and the Terps escaped with a three-point win over George Mason in 2001.

Larranaga does have a sympathetic ear in his athletic director's office, since Tom O'Connor, who ran Loyola in the 1980s, is on the NCAA men's basketball committee.

Children, behave

The SEC fined Tennessee $5,000 for its inability to keep fans from storming the floor Saturday, after the Volunteers beat Florida, the last unbeaten in the land.


Earlier in the day, a similar scene unfolded when Georgetown beat Duke at MCI Center, where we got a reminder why alcohol isn't sold at on-campus arenas. It was a 1:30 p.m. start, and normally you only see that many students brandishing a beer during the lunch hour at a football tailgate. Some of those kids nearly got trampled in their rush to get on the floor, and Georgetown was fortunate to avoid a tragedy.

Around The Perimeter


No. 4 Texas at No. 24 Oklahoma, tomorrow, 9:05 p.m., ESPN2 -- It's not football, but these border rivals don't care for each other on a basketball court, either. Other than losing to Duke and Tennessee on successive Saturdays in December by a combined 48 points, the Longhorns have been perfect, as they're the only unbeaten in the Big 12 Conference. The Sooners, who had been ranked as high as No. 5, dropped their first two conference games, but have recovered to win three straight, two on the road.



Rudy Gay, Connecticut -- After the Huskies suffered their only loss, Jan. 3 at Marquette, coach Jim Calhoun made some pointed references to the uninspired play of Gay. The 6-foot-9 sophomore forward out of Archbishop Spalding had the requisite emotion Wednesday, when Connecticut celebrated its new No. 1 ranking with a rugged 66-50 defeat of giant-killer St. John's. In a low-scoring game, Gay had 20 points, eight rebounds and a technical foul.


Coppin State homestand -- After not playing at home during the first half of the regular season, the Eagles will finish with seven of their last 11 at the Coppin Center. Coach Fang Mitchell's team opens a four-game homestand tomorrow (7:30 p.m. ) against Howard. Monday brings a visit from UMES and Tim Parham, a 6-9, 240-pound post player from Chicago who considered entering the NBA draft last year. Coppin is on pace to get the No. 2 seed in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.

Paul McMullen