- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

It’s an epidemic spreading across college basketball. Programs like Kansas, Wisconsin, Georgetown and Marquette have been ranked among the top 10, only to be toppled by some little-known smaller program and dismissed from lofty status.

First, Oral Roberts went into Allen Fieldhouse and rock-chalked the then-third-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. Then Old Dominion dumped then-No. 8 Georgetown in the Hoyas’ on-campus home of McDonough Arena. It continued when Missouri State showed up once-No. 7 Wisconsin.

The latest head-scratcher comes courtesy of North Dakota State, an independent program from Fargo, N.D. The Bison last Saturday ran over then-No. 8 Marquette on the Golden Eagles’ home court.

“Who got upset tonight?” Maryland coach Gary Williams said after the 23rd-ranked Terrapins survived over Fordham on Wednesday.

This afternoon, George Mason hopes to become the next spoiler as the Patriots — despite their Cinderella run to the Final Four last season — are an afterthought as they head to seventh-ranked Duke. The Blue Devils own the nation’s longest non-conference home-win streak with 47 straight over a span of more than six seasons in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“Sometimes it is just contagious,” said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, whose team pulled off the greatest upset run in NCAA tournament history last season with wins over Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut. “Somebody convinces the next guy and then the next guy.”

Meanwhile, Georgetown hopes to avoid another homecourt upset by a mid-major program. Oral Roberts, the Tulsa, Okla., Christian school of the Mid-Continent Conference, takes on the Hoyas today at Verizon Center.

“We had some success early and the kids started to believe,” said Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton, the son of legendary coach Eddie Sutton. “I don’t think anybody expected us to beat Kansas — certainly not in that environment, which is one of the most intimidating, and playing a team that is as talented as anybody. I was pleasantly surprised.”

The rash of upsets often contain an element of fluke, like when Oral Roberts’ Michael Vealy — who made one 3-pointer all last season — made seven straight 3-pointers.

“Nobody knew he was going to come in here and shoot like that,” Oral Roberts forward Caleb Green said after the 78-71 win. “All the pieces were there for a big upset.”

It also helps if the heavy favorite takes its unheralded opponent lightly, leaving it vulnerable for an off-night.

The Jayhawks shot just 2-for-10 from 3-point range and 11-for-21 from the foul line. However, most upsets come from teams with some talent. Oral Roberts was in the NCAA tournament and has two-time league player of the year Green, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds in the Kansas’ win.

While good fortune and being overlooked are important ingredients in pulling off an unlikely victory, there are strategies — both motivational and tactical — that can set the stage for a giant-killing.

“The biggest thing is not allowing your kids to feel the goal is to play a close game,” said Bucknell coach Pat Flannery, whose Patriot League team won at Syracuse last season and as a No. 14 seed in the 2005 NCAA tournament posted a win over third-seeded Kansas. “We had that mentality until one year when we finally broke through and beat Alabama. Now, we are at the point where we don’t want to play them close. We want to leave it there, and if we win, we win.”

Larranaga’s history of pulling off major upsets goes back much further than last March. It actually began in his second season as a coach at Bowling Green in December 1987 when he took his team to face Kentucky. The Wildcats had three future NBA players, including LeRon Ellis and Chris Mills.

The coach believed his team would win, but admits he might have been the only one.

“What I told them is by looking at the Kentucky team on paper we were clearly overmatched,” Larranaga said. “I also told them one of the great things about basketball is you always have a chance if you can exploit certain matchups. They started [then-Kentucky coach] Eddie Sutton’s son [and Scott’s brother] Sean at the one [point guard] and Richie Farmer at the two [shooting guard], two very good players. But from a defensive standpoint, having been that kind of player, I knew how difficult it was to guard little guys. And we had two 5-10 point guards who could shoot.”

The plan was to let small but quick guards Joe Gregory and Darryl McLean beat their bigger counterparts off the dribble and either find the open man down low once the defensive help arrived or kick out to the wings for an open jumper. It worked and the Falcons led at halftime before a disbelieving crowd of 23,000 at Rupp Arena.

“At halftime, I said, ‘Do you believe me now?’ ” Larranaga recalled. “I said, ‘I am not sure if you believed me before the game, but you absolutely have to believe me now. Are you intimidated by these guys?’ And the two little guards said, ‘I can go out and beat my man every time.’ I said, ‘Then go out and do it.’

“It was absolutely amazing.”

Kentucky was only the beginning of Larranaga’s upsets. He led Bowling Green to the first win by an opponent at Michigan State’s Breslin Center in 1989. In that game the Falcons stunned the third-ranked Spartans with future NBA player Steve Smith. Bowling Green repeated the feat the following season beating then-fifth-ranked Michigan easily at home.

At George Mason, the Patriots broke a Mississippi’s 44-game home win streak in 2001 when Larranaga’s son Jon scored the winning basket.

Larranaga’s team trailed 12-0 in the second upset of Michigan State but maintained its composure. It was similar to last season’s second-round NCAA tournament game when defending-national champion North Carolina had a 16-2 lead before George Mason rallied.

“Don’t overreact,” Larranaga said. “Like when we fell behind to Carolina. There are going to be some ups and downs. We have to deal with all on a level keel. One of the bigger things during the game was when [North Carolina] Coach [Roy] Williams got upset with one of his players. At a timeout, we were able to say that you can sense that they are feeling this pressure.”

The tactical advantage the Patriots enjoyed in their four NCAA tournament wins was they played exclusively against man-to-man defenses. Playing behind big men Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, the Patriots dumped the ball down low and let the strong passing post players either go to the basket or find the open man on the perimeter if the defense sagged.

It might have been a different story if an opponent had tried a zone defense and put pressure on George Mason’s outside shooting.

Can the Patriots pull off another miracle against the mighty Blue Devils?

“Not yet, because we have so many issues of our own,” said Larranaga, whose team has a 4-3 record and is coming off a come-from-behind 62-60 win at Radford. “We have guys not playing the way I want them to play. I can’t make a plan to upset a team like Duke when I can’t get them to practice correctly. First, you have to be playing good.”

Then again, Oral Roberts (4-3) lost its season opener to Loyola Marymount before shocking the Jayhawks. The Golden Eagles broke a two-game losing streak, with losses to Tulsa and Akron, this week with a home win over Lamar.

“Success like George Mason and [Sweet 16 participant] Wichita State had last year probably gives guys at our level confidence that we can play with anyone,” said Scott Sutton, who is in his eighth season at Oral Roberts. “We are going to have to have some success early and maybe put some doubt in Georgetown’s mind. This isn’t the biggest game on Georgetown’s schedule. Our kids will come in with the belief that we can win. If we gain some confidence early, anything can happen in basketball.”

It already has.

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