- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

They are America’s favorite underdogs, the embodiment of March, the rallying cry of all the modestly equipped teams that dare to dream.

They are the George Mason Patriots.

They took us on a wild and implausible basketball journey two years ago. They stopped in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood in late March and stared down one of the elite programs of the Big East.

They beat a team in overtime that featured four first-round draft picks of the NBA in 2006: Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong and Marcus Williams. They beat a team that was taller, faster and quicker. They beat a team accustomed to playing before packed arenas, accustomed to the bright lights and media glare.

Jim Calhoun, Connecticut’s coach, said the following after one of the most celebrated outcomes ever in the NCAA tournament: “They don’t measure heart by inches.”

Now coach Jim Larranaga and the George Mason basketball team have qualified to make another run in the NCAA tournament. They did it on defense and their customary grit in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. They did it behind Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, two of the five players left from GMU’s Final Four team.

Thomas plays considerably taller than his 6-foot-7 list height, assuming GMU’s sports information department is being generous there. Thomas is averaging 15.8 points and 10.5 rebounds in 33 games. Campbell, one of the team’s 3-point marksmen, is averaging a team-high 15.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

They lead a team that is understated but ever hopeful it can find the magic again, find that combination of confidence and rhythm and chemistry, find that much-necessary fortuitous bounce or two in a tight game.

They lead a team that places its faith in defense because they know that when all else fails, when the rim is being unkind and the referees and crowd are conspiring against them, they can control their energy and effort on defense.

We are nearing the best three weekends on the sports calendar each year. Nothing else approaches the last-second drama, the puddles of sweat and tears on painted faces, the agony and joy of the NCAA tournament.

All the sins of big-time college sports are forgiven in March and early April. All the recruiting scandals are momentarily put aside. All the coaches being given pink slips or looking to jump up the basketball food chain are relegated to footnote status.

Nothing tops the NCAA tournament.

Not the Super Bowl. Not the World Series. Not the NBA playoffs.

That is because the heavily favored do not always prevail in the single-elimination format, which is both the lure and bane of the event, depending on your notion of determining a champion.

And little George Mason — well, it is not really a little university — remains the symbol of all the possibilities, of all that is good and wholesome about intercollegiate sports.

You could not imagine the exuberant, infectious Larranaga being caught up in a cell-phone scandal. You could not imagine Larranaga looking the other way if one of his players ran afoul of the rules or the law or sullied the spirit of the competition.

In fact, we have fairly strong evidence to the contrary from two years ago, when Larranaga gave Tony Skinn a one-game suspension after he punched a Hofstra player in the groin in the CAA semifinals.

Skinn sat out the CAA championship game, a loss, and then he and the Patriots were forced to await their at-large fate on Selection Sunday.

There is no anxious wait this year, only a warm and enthusiastic feeling on the Fairfax campus. The notion of the 23-10 Patriots somehow reprising their 2006 run is probably not fair to them, although it is unavoidable.

At least no introductions are necessary this time around.

This is George Mason, not James Madison, the two campuses separated by about two hours of interstate.

The Patriots are back.

America can hope they are back in a “back-to-the-future” way.

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