- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Twenty-four hours later, it was still hard to wrap your mind around the fact and grasp the reality: George Mason University is going to the Final Four.

As you read, hear and say it, the words remain unreal, surreal, crazy even. Not because the Patriots don’t deserve it, but because of the sheer improbability, at the start of the NCAA tournament, of this happening.

Upsets and surprises happen all the time in sports. Little guys can and do beat big guys. But this, as the old football coach Joe Kuharich used to say, is a horse of a different fire engine. In terms of pure shock value, it might rank up there with such bellwether events as the New York Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and even, dare it be said, the Miracle on Ice.

“It’s the greatest achievement I’ve ever witnessed in all my years of being a coach and a television personality,” said ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, whose normal tendency toward hyperbole does not seem such a stretch in this case. “I really, absolutely have been blown away.”

Putting admiration, respect and a huge sense of accomplishment aside, George Mason in a strict sense has not won anything yet. Only one team can be national champion. The Patriots started out as one of 65 with a chance they almost did not get. Then it was one of 32, one of 16, one of eight and now one of four.

Being that one of four, a team from the Colonial Athletic Association beating three programs that have won national championships in the last five years, has made George Mason the talk of the sports world. This is no small feat, given the quantity of talk out there.

“I think this is one of the greatest stories in the history of college basketball,” said Jay Bilas, a commentator cohort of Vitale’s at ESPN.

After it lost to Hofstra in the CAA tournament and coach Jim Larranaga suspended starting guard Tony Skinn for punching an opponent, George Mason barely made the NCAAs as an 11th seed.

“You talk about a team being a hair away,” said Bilas, who on Selection Sunday said he did not think the Patriots would or should get in. “Someone who was in the [selection] committee room told me that he had a real problem picking Mason over Hofstra.”

John Avello, director of the Wynn Las Vegas sports book, said George Mason started the tournament as a 100-1 shot to emerge from the Washington, D.C., regional, and a 300-1 pick to win it all.

Now the Patriots are a 5-to-1 shot to win the national title.

“There have been a lot of upsets through the years,” Avello said. “There are upsets every day. But to get to this point is amazing. Especially a team that lost to the Flying Dutchman [Hofstra] in the [conference] tournament. As far as I’m concerned, this is the No.1 upset as far as taking it from the beginning to where they are now.”

This season had a lot of good but not great teams, Bilas said, which helped create favorable conditions for the Patriots, a veteran squad with talent and diverse skills, to leap from their so-called mid-major status to national prominence.

“But it’s still incredibly improbable,” he said. “People are gonna be asking next year, and I’m already prepared for it, ‘Who’s the next George Mason?’ There’s not gonna be one. There won’t be a story this good. Maybe ever.”

One reason, Bilas said, is the slim margin of error. He pointed out that if UConn guard Denham Brown had made his 3-point attempt at the overtime buzzer Sunday, it would be the Huskies and not the Patriots going to Indianapolis.

“I think this kind of thing was a lightning strike,” Bilas said. “It is absolutely extraordinary.”

So now we scramble for comparisons. Only once before has a team seeded as low, No. 11 LSU in 1986, made it to hallowedground. But the Tigers were underachievers coming from the tough SEC.

Penn in 1979? The Quakers were a No.9 seed in a 48-team field. But Penn dominated the Ivy League during the 1970s and at times was considered a top national program.

“Penn had more basketball tradition [than George Mason],” Vitale said. “They had teams in the top 10.”

Indiana State in 1979 doesn’t count because of Larry Bird and, besides, the Sycamoreswere a No.1 seed. A case might be made for UNC Charlotte in 1977. This was before teams were seeded and few knew about the 49ers. But they had a legitimate superstar, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, who carried the club and later had a successful NBA career.

CBS commentator Billy Packer, who drew a lot of fire for criticizing the selection of so many mid-major schools (but not George Mason by name, he said) at the expense of the larger conferences, said he can think of just one other NCAA tournament with as unlikely a sequence of events. That was in 1944, he said, when Utah voted to play in the NIT instead of the NCAA because the NIT was considered more prestigious, and coach Vadal Peterson wanted his players to see New York.

So Utah went East and lost its first game. But on the way home, the team was invited to play in the NCAA tournament in place of Arkansas, which was decimated by a car crash. Led by Arnie Ferrin and the Japanese-American Wat Misaka (this was during World War II, remember), Utah beat Iowa State in Kansas City and then defeated Dartmouth to win the championship … in New York.

That’s some story. And, Packer said, “the only thing that would rival the George Mason deal.”

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