George Mason looks to repeat NCAA run

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FAIRFAX, Va. | George Mason is at it again, leading a mid-major charge against the NCAA’s big boys.

The Patriots have won nine in a row, have bumped their RPI into the high 20s and are receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. They look good enough to make the NCAA tournament even if they don’t win their conference, something that last happened in 2006, the year of their improbable run to the Final Four.

“Even when I go to my classes, my professors still bring up the Final Four,” said junior forward Ryan Pearson, who on Monday was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s player of the week. “And I’m like, ‘I wasn’t a part of that. I want to make my own history here.’”

Most intriguingly, George Mason is at the crest of a CAA wave that could land three or more schools in the NCAAs for the first time in conference history. The CAA has been making the case for years that it deserves better than its usual one-bid status, and this year the computers say the conference has a good argument.

“They certainly have two teams that are in good shape right now as far as the numbers go,” said Jim Sukup, publisher of the Collegiate Basketball News RPI on rpiratings.com. “And a couple of others that could go, given the right circumstance.”

The Patriots, of course, were the subject of much debate when they were made an at-large selection five years ago, but they justified it by winning the East Regional in one of the best little-guy-makes-good stories of the last decade.

Except that George Mason isn’t a little guy — it’s the biggest university in Virginia by enrollment — and it now can no longer be picked on as a “commuter school,” at least not officially. Enough new dorms have opened during the recent construction boom that the campus’ classification has just been changed to “primarily residential” instead of “primarily nonresidential” by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

But the Patriots have been back to the NCAAs just once since the Final Four run, losing in the first round to Notre Dame in 2008. Last year’s freshman-laden team slumped its way to something called the CollegeInsider.com tournament, and last fall coach Jim Larranaga took the team on a preseason trip to Italy to get rid of cliques and get the players to start focusing more on defense.

“We really got to bond as a team,” senior guard Isaiah Tate said. “We were out everywhere. We switched up roommates every time we were in the hotel.”

While the various RPIs might differ by a spot or two, all generally have George Mason and Old Dominion in the top 30. Virginia Commonwealth and Drexel are hovering between 50 and 60. It’s not hard to picture a scenario of, say, VCU winning the conference tournament, with GMU and ODU both getting NCAA at-large bids.

Yet George Mason’s list of victories is hardly daunting. The Patriots are 19-5, but their biggest out-of-conference wins came against Harvard and Duquesne. Old Dominion’s biggest conquests are Xavier and Dayton, which leads to the question: Has the CAA figured out how to rig the system?

“I would say that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Sukup said. “If you figured out a way to do the system, everyone would be doing it and nothing would change. What it boils down to is that everything has to fall into place for you.”

The Missouri Valley Conference was accused of something similar when it earned three at-large bids in 2006.

“They won. That’s how you rig the system — you win,” Larranaga said. “You can’t get into the top 30 or 40 teams in the country by somehow rigging your schedule. You have to win games. And I don’t care what league you’re in, playing a conference opponent on the road is difficult.”

The biggest factor is that the CAA is getting better as a whole. Six of the 12 teams have RPIs in the top 100, which helps feed everyone’s strength of schedule. When George Mason played Old Dominion on Saturday, one of the teams was guaranteed a win over a top 30 school.

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