George Mason and its fans figured the Patriots were safely tucked into the NCAA tournament field.
They didn’t wait long to eliminate any lingering doubt.
The Colonial Athletic Association regular season champions earned the No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East regional Sunday night, collecting a ticket to Cleveland to face ninth-seeded Villanova on Friday. With a win, the Patriots would meet top-seeded Ohio State or the winner of a play-in game between Texas-San Antonio and Alabama State.
Mason (26-6), which will make its sixth NCAA appearance and fifth in the last 13 years, was the fourth team unveiled during the selection show.
“It felt good even though we had to stay here the whole time,” senior guard Cam Long said with a grin after watching the selection show on campus with a gathering of teammates and fans. “Just to see it go up there early just shows us they had us in there early and had us in their minds that we were a good team and that we were going to be able to show what we were capable of doing.”
Mason was one of a record three CAA teams to earn spots in the field. Conference tournament champ Old Dominion is a No. 9 seed, while Virginia Commonwealth was one of the last four at-large selections and will play Southern California on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.
It was in Dayton that Mason began its memorable run to the 2006 Final Four, the only other instance in program history the Patriots earned an at-large bid. This tournament’s first stop is also in the Buckeye State, extending the similarities between Mason’s most famous team and another of its best products.
“How many things can repeat itself?” coach Jim Larranaga said. “Dayton in ’06 and Cleveland in ’11. In ’06, we played Michigan State, a team we played the year before in the BB&T. This year, we’re playing Villanova, a team we played in Puerto Rico.”
Indeed, the Patriots are plenty familiar with Villanova. Mason dropped a 69-68 decision to the Wildcats in November 2009 when Isaiah Armwood hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left in a game the Patriots led nearly all the way.
But this is a different Villanova group. The Wildcats (21-11) have dropped five in a row and seven of their last nine, with their only victories in the last month secured against Big East also-rans Seton Hall and DePaul, the latter in overtime.
“They hit us with a buzzer-beater,” Long said. “It was a buzzer-beater game. Every game is different. It’s going to be a different circumstance when that game shows up.”
While Long and his teammates lounged on a stage set up in Mason’s student center, Larranaga studied the final 64 teams unveiled and was pleased the CAA was rewarded for what he described as the conference’s “best year ever.” It was only the fourth time in league’s 29 seasons its teams earned multiple NCAA berths.
At the first commercial break after the Patriots learned their seeding, Larranaga was handed a microphone and spoke to the assembled crowd. He quickly noted Cleveland is a mere six-hour drive from Fairfax, prompting cheers from fans who might make the trip during the school’s spring break.
“I expect a lot of fans,” junior forward Ryan Pearson said. “We gave them a great season this year, one of the best in George Mason history. I think our fans have a lot to look forward to. I expect to see a lot of green and gold in the crowd on Friday.”
—- Patrick Stevens