- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Connecticut has won two national titles in the last seven years. The Huskies have 39 total NCAA tournament wins and are led by Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun. This season’s team is the Washington, D.C., regional’s top seed, the favorite to win a national title and stocked with future NBA players like Rudy Gay.

George Mason had never won a NCAA tournament game before this season. And the 11th-seeded Patriots probably have no future NBA players on their roster. Not surprisingly, Mason is forecast to be little more than fodder for the Huskies on the way to the Final Four.

“They are pretty good,” Patriots coach Jim Larranaga said with a deadpan expression yesterday. “That’s a joke.”

Perhaps the most important ingredient during George Mason’s historic run has been a sense of levity. Mason has stayed relaxed, cracked jokes and relished the intensifying spotlight as it advanced to Sweet 16 and now the Elite Eight.

“My final three schools were George Mason, George Mason and George Mason,” Patriots guard Tony Skinn said when asked what his final three college choices were yesterday. “And I’m glad I chose George Mason.”

The Patriots even have played a variation of whiffleball, with Larranaga as the pitcher, on the basketball court after practices.

Mason, the Cinderella of this Big Dance, has shown no outward changes.

It could be the Patriots just don’t know any better — the ignorance-is-bliss theory — or perhaps they are just a veteran team that knows its capabilities.

“These guys are loose and they are having a ball,” Larranaga said. “They have not felt the pressure of expectations. They have done basically what they have all year — and that’s have fun and play ball.”

The Patriots (26-7), the fifth team seeded 11th or lower to reach a regional final, aim for history this afternoon on another count: They look to become only the second since LSU in 1986 to reach the Final Four.

Mason wants to become the first CAA team to reach the Final Four after becoming only the second CAA team to reach the Elite Eight, since David Robinson-led Navy in 1986.

“There is a preconceived notion that because you were not able to do it before you should not be able to do it now,” said Larranaga, who feels the gap between major conference programs and top mid-majors is closing. “If the name on our jerseys was not George Mason, if it was Georgia Tech from the ACC, everyone would look at this differently and they would look at what we’ve done in the tournament.”

Mason has played incredible defense, controlled the pace of games and shot exceptionally well. The Patriots are shooting 47.7 percent in the tournament — 38.6 on 3-pointers — while holding foes to 38.6-percent shooting.

The results? Upsets of sixth-seed Michigan State, No.3 North Carolina — half of last season’s Final Four — and No.7 Wichita State on Friday.

Connecticut comes off what point guard Marcus Williams called “the toughest game I have ever played in” after he scored 26 in Friday’s 98-92 overtime win over Washington Friday. The Huskies are probably the most talented team in college basketball, but they have seemed disinterested and infuriated coach Jim Calhoun at times this season and in this tournament.

Gay, who is expected to be one of the top picks in the next NBA Draft, headlines the wealth of talent, including 6-foot-10 inside force Josh Boone.

“They’re humongous,” said Mason guard Lamar Butler, whose defense held Wichita State to 31.3-percent shooting. “We have to negate that with our speed. We can’t let them get comfortable. We have to get pressure on the ball.”

The Patriots hope to keep the Huskies out of the paint and make them shoot from the perimeter.

For his part, Calhoun has tried to keep his ADD group interested by saying it was slighted by the NCAA tournament selection committee, which he stretched to suggested knew Mason would get this far.

“It’s going to be nice to playing an away game, too,” Calhoun said during his post-game press conference after 1 a.m. yesterday. “I think that part of the [pod] system is really working out to protect the [No.] 1’s [seeds], right?”

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