Larranaga starts each practice with a motivational quote encompassing a wide range of contributors from Socrates to Shaquille. He also makes adept adjustments during games and during the season. For instance: last season when he realized his point guard Raoul Heinen was too good a shooter to be carrying the bulk of ball handling duties, he switch his 6-foot-7 son Jon Larranaga from the starting forward position to the point and the Patriots flourished under his guidance.
George Mason has a strong backcourt headed by Toledo transfer Terry Reynolds, a 5-foot-9 point guard and native of Nashville who was named the Mid American Conference rookie of the year in 2001. The Pats are a veteran squad that features a trio of productive seniors in the 6-foot-5 Heinen and 6-foot-5 Mark Davis — the type of athletic wing player that has given Tennessee fits this season. They are joined by fellow senior Richard Tyne, a 6-4 small forward who is a defensive stopper.
The Pats also have options on the inside beginning with sophomore Jai Lewis a 6-foot-10, 275-pound wide-body who will test Tennessee's toughness in the paint as well as the boards. Forward Deon Cooper of Columbia, Tenn., is another strong player for George Mason off the bench while 6-foot-9 225-pound junior college transfer Terry Mickens adds more quality depth in a defined role. Mickens' services were sought by a number of big name colleges.
Only a narrow defeat to Virginia in the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament prevented the Patriots from going to the NCAA, a scenario the resourceful Larranaga is sure to use to motivate his club.
The Patriots appear to have good match-ups across the board vs. Tennessee and are used to operating against the man defense. They are also an excellent perimeter shooting team and Tennessee will have to extend its defense to keep from being shot right out of the contest.
The Vols will also have to overcome a decided home court advantage against George Mason which was 12-1 at the Patriot Center this season while Tennessee was only 1-10 away from Thompson-Boling Arena. Larranaga and Company will also have time to scout and prepare for Tennessee's invasion and would relish the opportunity to conquer an SEC opponent.
Add it all up and Wednesday's contest figures to be a huge challenge for a Tennessee team that was blown out in the SEC tournament by 35 points vs. Alabama. The Vols appeared virtually defenseless in that game and expecting a complete turnaround this late in the season vs. a highly motivated and well coached opponent on the road might be little more than wishful thinking.
But it is the only chance Tennessee has to build something approaching momentum entering next season which projects as pivotal in Buzz Peterson's tenure on the Hill.