- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

The at-large bid that went to the George Mason Patriots prompted a question that doubled as an indictment: “What are they doing in the NCAA tournament?”

That was the chatter before the Patriots upended Michigan State and then North Carolina yesterday.

That was before the Patriots, among others, went about reminding the bracket heads that college basketball is not nearly as orderly and predictable as it was a generation ago.

Parity, for better or worse, has descended on the sport in compelling fashion.

You can tell by the ascent of George Mason, Wichita State, Gonzaga and Bradley. You can tell by the high number of games in which the prohibitive favorite merely outlasted the no-name school from some unknown place.

That is how it was for the Tar Heels in the first round of the tournament against a nondescript Murray State team.

The Tar Heels escaped with a 69-65 victory and had to believe that their potential nightmare scenario was behind them. And they had to believe that this day in the second round was theirs after they built a 16-2 lead on the Patriots in the opening minutes.

And then, as so often happens in the tournament, an underdog team comes out of its starry-eyed funk and begins to discover that it can play with the celebrated team on equal terms.

This is the new college basketball order. The brand-name schools still secure the top talent. But that talent is neither as deep nor as special as it once was because of the precocious ones in a rush to play in the NBA.

In fact, George Mason’s so-called upset of the Tar Heels had its beginnings last April, when the Tar Heels hoisted the national championship trophy and Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams, Sean May and Rashad McCants all decided it was time to improve their quality of life with a trip to the NBA.

The Patriots would not have wanted to see that foursome in Dayton, Ohio.

Not that this reality devalues the quality of George Mason’s journey in the NCAA tournament.

Eight days ago, no one expected the Patriots to survive the scrutiny of the selection committee, not after they lost twice to Hofstra within 10 days, including in the CAA tournament. After their inclusion, the traditionalists responded with a sniff, as if they still are unable to recognize the pronounced changes in the game.

The depth of the power conferences is mostly a myth, as the results of the tournament are revealing. The Big East garnered eight bids to the tournament. Three of its also-rans disappeared in the blink of an eye.

The leading schools of college basketball function with a win-lose proposition these days. They land the blue-chippers, but only for a limited time. Their high turnover rate is a curse that leads to long stays on the recruiting trail each summer.

The curse probably was on the mind of Tar Heels coach Roy Williams as he attacked his folding chair at one juncture in the game.

He also screamed and turned red in the face at various points as he was confronted with the prospect of losing to a team that possibly never had crossed his mind until its name popped up on the bracket sheet.

Until then, as far as Williams knew, George Mason might as well have been George Harrison.

The George Masons of college basketball rarely used to be relevant after the first weekend of the tournament. There would be the occasional Richmond in 1988, the last time a school from the CAA advanced to the round of 16.

But now the schools that used to be so much fodder are showing they belong. And they are showing how beneficial it is to have a roster stuffed with third- and fourth-year players.

Each of George Mason’s players may lack the requisite stuff to play in the ACC, but their overall experience could neutralize the physical advantages of a team overly dependent on four freshmen.

As for the doubts, George Mason has eliminated them with an exclamation point.

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