CLEVELAND – On a typical day in college basketball, the sight of George Mason and Villanova on the same floor would prompt a simple answer to the question of who was supposed to win.
‘Nova, with its resources and 1985 national title and strong run under Jay Wright, would be considered the likely winner. Mason wouldn’t be counted out – the 2006 Final Four run is far too recent to make the Patriots forgettable – but probably not expected to win.
Vegas (for purely entertainment purposes, of course) would seem to agree. Villanova enters Friday as a consensus 1.5-point favorite as the teams’ mid-afternoon tip at Quicken Loans Arena approaches.
Still, Mason will be the Colonial Athletic Association’s first higher-seeded team in any NCAA tournament game since 1986. And the Wildcats struggled down the stretch, dropping five straight and seven of nine. Since rallying past Maryland on Jan. 15, the Wildcats (21-11) lost 10 of 15.
Villanova, though, dismissed any hint it isn’t supposed to win on Thursday.
“We’re hearing [about] being the underdog,” guard Corey Fisher said. “Being the underdog is good, but we don’t consider ourselves being the underdog. We know how good we are. We struggled late. If we would have won them games, then you might hear from somebody else, ‘Villanova can win this, can win that.’”
George Mason guard Cam Long mentioned earlier in the week how the Patriots had to embrace an underdog role, even if they were wearing white jerseys in their tournament opener.
Still, he seemed intrigued by comments coming from the Wildcats.
“That’s definitely a big motivation,” Long said. “We always consider ourselves the underdogs, even if we are ranked at a higher seed. It still comes to down to what I was saying: It’s not about ourselves, it’s about the CAA.”
There’s also a sliver of reality: This is an 8-9 game. It should be, on paper anyway, one of the biggest toss-ups in the first few days of the tournament. Either team should have a chance to win, and it would be more surprising to see a rout than a five-point game in either direction.
Still, the whole underdog/favorite dynamic has some juice – especially for two teams that understandably believe they can advance if they play well.
“I was just texting my friend and he said ‘You guys are underdogs,’ but he’s picking us to win,” Mason forward Mike Morrison said. “I said ‘Hold on. We’re the eighth seed.’ I don’t think either team is thinking of themselves as the underdog. I think it’s going to be a good matched-up game.”