- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS. — Step aside, Dallas Cowboys.

There is a new America’s Team, if only for the moment.

The George Mason University basketball team has come to be the celebrated darling of the Final Four, for America is a sucker for the underdog.

That development is not lost on the Florida Gators, according to Joakim Noah.

“We’ll be the villain against George Mason,” the Gators forward said yesterday. “But it doesn’t matter. We have been in hostile environments this season.”

The Patriots are liable to have a preponderance of the crowd support in the RCA Dome tonight, when they meet the Gators in the national semifinal.

The parts of the nation without a rooting interest in UCLA, Louisiana State or Florida have adopted the zillion-to-1 Patriots, a Colonial Athletic Association representative that has crashed the domain of the power conferences in stunning fashion.

As Gators guard Taurean Green said, “The hype is all on them.”

To the question of a national champion, the respondents to an ESPN.com poll had George Mason securing the second-highest number of votes of the four participants at one point yesterday. The Patriots had the majority of votes in states as far west as Wyoming and Utah — votes no doubt made with the heart.

To the notion of his team being almost overlooked because of the fascination with George Mason, Florida coach Billy Donovan voiced no objections.

“I don’t think our guys are upset or bothered about the George Mason story and rightfully so,” he said. “It is a great story.”

The Gators are trying to ignore the insights of the national press and a nation’s budding love affair with the Patriots anyway.

“We can’t worry about what you guys say,” Noah said. “Otherwise, our heads would explode.”

Noah borrowed the philosophy of a teammate to temper the overheated assessments in his midst.

After the 6:07 p.m. tipoff, Noah said, the exercise will be decided by the 10 players on a makeshift floor, engaged in an activity featuring two cylinders and one basketball.

Until then, the Patriots are eager to hug the national sentiment being cast in their direction.

“We definitely feel it,” guard Lamar Butler said.

He could not lose his grin as he spoke in awe of being in Peyton Manning’s venue and in a dome for the first time.

Perhaps the awe contributed to Butler’s first practice shot in the dome being an air ball.

The cavernous-like quality of a dome and the deep shooting background is often a challenge to perimeter shooters, accustomed as they are to playing in arenas.

That is the unknown element before the four teams.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga has allowed his inner shrink to emerge in the NCAA tournament. His ability to help his players find the joy amid the stress no doubt has been honed from his longtime relationship with sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella.

He plays his head games with a ready anecdote.

Who are those guys?

That query prompted Larranaga to cull from a scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

The two robbers never can shake their pursuers, which leads Cassidy at one point to say: “Who are those guys?”

“That’s us,” Larranaga said. “We’re those guys.”

The Patriots are the guys the deep-pocketed opposition has been unable to eliminate from the tournament.

So now a large section of the stage has been set aside for them.

“It is great to be the underdog and the overachiever,” Larranaga said. “Here we have a bunch of no-name guys playing in the biggest sporting event in the world.”

Larranaga is entitled to overstate the event.

The event is certainly beyond the experience of the Patriots.

Butler was caught peeking behind the curtain before it was his time to take the podium.

“I have never seen so many people in one room to ask questions,” he said.

The talk stops soon enough.

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