The Washington Times - March 17, 2011, 03:16PM

CLEVELAND – As the final minutes of the Old Dominion-Butler first round game unfolded on large screens in the media workroom in Quicken Loans Arena, there was a set of unexpected guests who took a look as well.

That would be the George Mason basketball team, which definitely has a rooting interest in how its conference brethren fares.

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This is the first year the Colonial Athletic Association earned three NCAA tournament berths, in part because of the expanded field. Virginia Commonwealth, an at-large pick, handled Southern California on Wednesday. Mason, the No. 8 seed in the East regional, plays Villanova on Friday.

And Old Dominion, the conference tournament champ, was edged 60-58 on a buzzer beater by 2010 finalist Butler on Thursday.

It was with disappointment the Patriots turned away and left for their off-site practice session after the Monarchs were ousted. After all, every win for a CAA team bolsters the profiles of everyone in the league.

“At first, being that George Mason is a team in the conference, I wasn’t really fans of other teams,” senior guard Cam Long said. “But once I got to understand things as I gradually grew in my years, I got to understand it’s not really all about yourselves. When you’re first growing up, you think about yourself. But now, it’s thinking about the team. And thinking about the team, it’s thinking about Mason, and with Mason you’ve got to think about the CAA.

“Once I was able to gradually understand that, it shows that the CAA is all that really matters. Even though we want our own thing to be accomplished, the CAA is what it all comes down to, especially with two other teams getting opportunities.”

Virginia Commonwealth’s victory gave the league a tournament for the fourth time in six years, and Long said he watched part of the game. Junior Ryan Pearson, weary from a day of travel, didn’t see any of the Rams’ win, but was pleased when he learned the outcome.

“I was glad when I woke up this morning and they won,” Pearson said. “That’s just another CAA team in there. I was rooting for them. Now that we have three teams in this tournament, we’re starting to get a little bit of that recognition the CAA needs.”

Indeed, VCU’s selection in particular ruffled some feathers. The Rams (24-11) owned an 8-8 record against the top 100 entering the tournament and secured five of their six victories away from their on-campus arena.

While single games don’t justify a tournament committee’s decisions, it can change public perception just a bit. The CAA had six teams win 21 games (only the Big 12 and Big East could also boast that), and all of those teams were ranked in the top 90 of the RPI.

“One of the things about our league, you’ll hear the experts predict that someone’s going to beat so and so, or this league is not as good, and the funny thing is, most of the guys doing the talking have never seen us play, never seen the teams in our conference play because we’re not on television as often as the BCS schools,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “They’re not as familiar. They don’t cover them with their networks. And so they don’t have the familiarity. But as a coach who has coached at this level for 25 years, I can tell you the CAA is now producing NBA-caliber players.”

The long-term issue for the conference isn’t necessarily generating good teams, but rather improving the bottom half of the conference. The CAA had four teams with RPIs worse than 200, and that’s a part of any conference’s perception.

Nonetheless, four schools – George Mason, Old Dominion, UNC Wilmington and VCU – have won at least one NCAA game within the last 10 years and the conference ranked 10th in the RPI this season.

“It’s a great league,” Pearson said. “Granted, the Big East and ACC schools get the most bids every year, but this is a great league. We had five teams that got 20 wins, four or five teams in the top 100 in the RPI. It’s a great league. I just wish that sometimes, some of the analysts took their time and looked at it and evaluate our league more.”

The longer Mason and VCU can stick around this month, the more likely it is to happen.

Patrick Stevens