- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Two weeks ago, they were merely the suburban college basketball team that played in the shadows. Zero NCAA tournament wins and only three all-time appearances don’t exactly cause waves in a loaded sports market.

So when the George Mason men’s basketball team gathered at coach Jim Larranaga’s home March 12, expectations were high, but so was the reality that comes from a lack of notoriety.

The Patriots thought themselves deserving of an NCAA tournament invitation, but also knew the facts — only one Colonial Athletic Association team ever had received an at-large bid.

“We were all nervous,” sophomore Will Thomas said. “When we were watching the early brackets, we saw George Washington get a No. 8 seed, and they had played great all season. That got me worried. I was holding my breath that we would get in.”

George Mason got in.

And then the Patriots went to work.

In the past nine days, they’ve won three games over higher-seeded teams, had a player appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, seen their bandwagon overflow with supporters and are now on the cusp of becoming the most unlikely Final Four team in tournament history.

“If you asked me two, three weeks ago where we’d be, in the back of my mind I didn’t think we would be here,” senior Tony Skinn said. “It’s a blessing to be here. It’s surreal.”

But the fourth challenge for George Mason will be its most difficult. The No. 11 seed Patriots face No. 1 seed Connecticut today at Verizon Center for the Washington Region championship. Tipoff time is 2:40 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday’s national semifinals in Indianapolis.

Connecticut has won two national championships since 1999. George Mason had not won a tournament game before its win March 17 over Michigan State.

Connecticut will be playing in its eighth Elite Eight contest. George Mason is only the fifth team — out of 176 — since 1985 to be seeded No. 11 or lower and reach the regional final.

The Huskies have been installed as eight-point favorites. But they are fully aware of what George Mason has done.

“It’s not a situation where they’ve done it once,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said yesterday. “They’ve come out three straight games. When you say Michigan State, North Carolina and a really good Wichita State team that they dispatched early — you know the team will grasp what we’re saying.”

Connecticut guard Rashad Anderson, who kept the Huskies’ season alive Friday night with a 3-pointer that forced overtime against Washington, put it this way: “A lot of people get caught up in the seeds. When it comes down to it, nobody should care about the rankings — it’s about two teams playing 40 minutes, and whoever scores more points wins. That’s it.”

Part of Jim Larranaga, the George Mason coach who, surprisingly, still had functioning vocal cords after a week of television and radio appearances and numerous press conferences, wonders what the fuss is about. Larranaga recruited all of the Patriots players and knew entering the season that Skinn and Thomas, Lamar Butler and Jai Lewis, Folarin Campbell and Gabe Norwood were high-caliber players.

“If the name on our jersey wasn’t George Mason, and it was Georgia Tech, everybody would look at this differently,” Larranaga said. “But people don’t do that. They have a preconceived notion because of the league we come from. I’ve felt for many years that I’ve had teams capable of competing with the best teams in the country.”

But another part of Larranaga can’t help but think that today, George Mason will be playing for all of the midmajor teams.

“The whole story of the first round is David versus Goliath,” he said. “But David has not won the national championship yet.”

Indeed, George Mason is entering rare territory.

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams (now 65) in 1985, a hallmark has been the unknown team making a run into the second weekend, simultaneously sending big-time programs packing, becoming media darlings and destroying Joe Fan’s office pool bracket.

Since 1990, Loyola Marymount, Tulsa and Gonzaga (both 1999) and Kent State (2002) are the only midmajor conference teams to reach the Elite Eight. All four teams lost.

Now George Mason has a chance to make history.

“They’ve done incredibly well for themselves,” Connecticut junior Josh Boone said. “They’ve beaten all the big teams along the way. They’re on a roll right now, and they probably see us as just another team in their way.”

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