The grass is always greener on the other side of the Potomac.
In 1997, when new coach Jim Larranaga mapped out his vision for George Mason University basketball, those aspirations hinged on regional recruiting. To the west lay the Blue Ridge Mountains, not prime territory for the city game. To the northeast, however, was the depth of talent that's been coming out of Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs of Washington for generations.
None of the nation's top 20 programs recruited Patriots seniors Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis and Tony Skinn, or sophomores Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas. All were looking to get away from home, but not so far that their families couldn't drive to see them play. Now the hours they spent in backups on the Capital Beltway have been rewarded.
The Final Four at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis will be the site of an improbable semifinal pairing tonight. Florida features sporting legacies from New York and Puerto Rico, the son of a Grand Slam tennis champion and the son of a former NBA player. George Mason will counter with five starters from Maryland, who barely got a recruiting sniff from Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East schools.
Butler, the Most Outstanding Player in the Washington Regional and the winningest player in school history, went to Oxon Hill High in Prince George's County.
Skinn, the tenacious guard who is the Patriots' second-leading scorer, was raised in Takoma Park, near the University of Maryland, and looked up to an older guy from the neighborhood, Steve Francis.
Lewis, the anchor in the middle who has played in a school-record 124 games, grew from a question mark coming out of Aberdeen High into George Mason's only selection on the all-Colonial Athletic Association first team.
Campbell, the wing who complements Butler and Skinn in a three-guard attack, starred at Montgomery County's Springbrook High.
All five score in double figures, and played the final 15 minutes of an overtime win over Connecticut in the Washington Regional final. The rotation would be deeper if Laurel High product John Vaughan, who made the CAA all-rookie team last season, hadn't missed this one with a knee injury.
Vaughan's family tree includes Marcus Hatten, a cousin from Baltimore who was a scoring machine for St. John's. Links like that are found throughout George Mason, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Towson scared top-ranked Oklahoma in the 1990 NCAA tournament with five starters from Baltimore.
A native of the Bronx, Larranaga was Providence College's premier perimeter player until his senior year, 1970-71, when sophomore Ernie DiGregorio took control. Larranaga was in the middle of a seven-year run as a Virginia assistant in 1983, when the top-seeded Cavaliers lost to North Carolina State in a regional final. The Wolfpack won the NCAA championship with Bladensburg's Thurl Bailey as its top player.
Bill Courtney, who moved to another assistant's job at Providence a year ago, recruited these George Mason players. His hometown is Springfield, Va., not far from George Mason, so he knew the history of the D.C. area, which includes Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing, two of the top 50 players in NBA history.
After a five-year absence, Maryland returned to the NCAA tournament in 1994 with Norfolk's Joe Smith and four locals. Gary Williams passed on all of George Mason's current players, but his best team had something in common with these Patriots. Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter were thought to be either too frail or too fat to make it in the ACC, similar to the skepticism that greeted Butler and Lewis, respectively.
Just as Adam Morrison wasn't considered one of the nation's 100 best prep players three years ago, George Mason's players were lacking something, either height or the test scores that made them eligible right out of high school. All, however, were winners.
"One of the things we've tried to do," Larranaga said, "is recruit players who came from winning programs and who have played for great high school coaches, so that their transition from high school to college is not as great an adjustment as it is for others."
Butler and Lewis played on state championship teams. Mount St. Joe's emergence atop the Catholic League coincided with the maturation of Thomas. He was in the Class of 2004, when the Maryland 4A final had Campbell's Springbrook team losing to PG's Northwestern and Jeff Green.
They could have teamed together at Georgetown.
"Georgetown signed a guard the week before my official visit," Campbell said, "so basically, they said they didn't need me."
Butler had gotten feelers from Maryland, but no scholarship. He chose George Mason over Atlantic 10 schools George Washington and Xavier, and became a pied piper. Lewis, whose football ability complicated his prospects coming out of Aberdeen, chose the Patriots over CAA rivals Drexel, Towson and Virginia Commonwealth. Thomas' suitors included the College of Charleston and St. Bonaventure, neither of which has gone to the NCAAs since 2000.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun was off base when he suggested that Larranaga had the Patriots playing with a chip on their shoulder, because of their being overlooked.
"If you do that," Larranaga said, "you're acting like those people are better than you. 'They didn't offer you, they are really, really good, we are not, but you can prove you are by coming to our place.' We don't view ourselves that way, so we don't take that approach."
He doesn't want his players envying what they lack and paints everything in a positive light, including George Mason's lack of intercollegiate football.
"That's one of the things they push, that there is no football," Mount St. Joe coach Pat Clatchey said. "Basketball is king. It's not sharing the spotlight."
Larranaga has to replace three starters. His incoming class includes 6-foot-6, 240-pound Louis Birdsong, The Sun's Player of the Year. His statistics for Mount St. Joe weren't as gaudy as his won-lost record. Talent evaluators describe him as being able to bang like Connecticut freshman Jeff Adrien, plus, he has a mid-range jump shot.
MASON STARTERS FROM MARYLAND
High school: Oxon Hill Pedigree: State 4A title as junior in 2000 March moment: Four-point play against Connecticut
High school: Springbrook Pedigree: Top player for state 4A finalists March moment: Overtime jumper over Rudy Gay on Sunday
High school: Aberdeen Pedigree: State 2A title as junior in 2000 March moment: 20 points against Connecticut
High school: Takoma Academy Pedigree: One year at Hagerstown CC saved year of eligibility March moment: Game-high four assists against Wichita State
High school: Mount St. Joseph Pedigree: Led Gaels to Catholic League crown in 2004 March moment: Beat Michigan State with 18 points, 14 rebounds