- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Incredible. Unbelievable. Inconceivable. Unimaginable.

My “Pocket Thesaurus” can only begin to describe George Mason’s presence in the Final Four, assured Sunday with an 86-84 overtime victory against UConn. This just isn’t supposed to happen, an 11th-seeded mid-major beating a top-seeded power from a seven-bid conference in a regional final — not even if the mid-major has Dennis “Shooter” Hopper sitting on its bench.

You know how, every now and then, there’ll be a story in the paper about astronomers discovering another planet? Well, hoops fans suddenly stumbling on GMU — somewhere between the 41st and 44th rock from the sun — according to the NCAA tournament committee — is kind of like that. There the Patriots were, orbiting invisibly in deep space, receiving barely enough sunlight to sustain life, and now they’re slathering on the SP-45 lest all the camera flashes singe their skin.

Obviously, there was something strange going on in the cosmos Sunday, some disruption of the Force, because just as George Mason was getting ready to conk UConn, Jean Van de Velde was winning the Medeira Island Open for his first victory in 13 years. George Mason and Van de Velde sharing the sports headlines — how perfect is that? Jean, after all, was the GMU of the ‘99 British Open, an obscure player from a mid-major golf country who found himself leading by three with a hole to go. But while the Frenchman was unable to finish the job, the Patriots, despite a Van de Velde-ian moment at the end of regulation and another close call in OT, survived their rendezvous with destiny — and set themselves up for another this weekend.

In Indiana. Home of Milan High (the real-life Hickory) and “Hoosiers.”

But let’s savor George Mason’s improbable feat a while longer. It wasn’t so long ago, remember — 1974, to be exact — that four victories were all it took to win the tournament. Imagine: The NCAA champion George Mason Patriots.

The debate has already begun about whether GMU’s toppling of UConn — and usurping of a spot at the Final Four table — is the biggest upset in the history of the NCAAs. Perhaps we can settle this argument systematically, with a minimum of hometown bias (something I studiously avoid unless, of course, it helps circulation).

The Patriots’ competition in the Biggest Upset category would appear to be:

• The 1979 Pennsylvania Quakers, the last mid-major to make the Final Four.

• The 1986 LSU Tigers, the only other 11-seed to reach the Final Four.

• The 1985 Villanova Wildcats, slayers of the Georgetown dragon as an eight-seed and the only one of our finalists to win the title (or, for that matter, to advance to the championship game).

Watch now as I expose these teams for the poseurs they are:

Pennsylvania, 1979: Yeah, it’s an Ivy League school, but the Ivy League’s place in the basketball universe was a lot different then than it is today. The Quakers went into the NCAAs ranked 14th in the AP poll and had gone to the Sweet 16 the season before. Earlier in the ‘70s, they had reached the Elite Eight in back-to-back years. Comparing Penn in ‘79 to George Mason in ‘06 is a joke.

LSU, 1986: The Tigers had a terrific run, no question. They went through the third (Memphis State), second (Georgia Tech) and first (Kentucky) seeds in their region en route to the Final Four. They were also, like GMU, unranked at the start of the tournament. But here’s the thing: They weren’t even the best Cinderella Story that year. Navy and David Robinson were for advancing to the Elite Eight (and, along the way, dropping a 65-point second half on Syracuse — at the Carrier Dome). Besides, does anybody really get chills when a school from a power conference gets hot at the end of the season and pulls a few surprises in the NCAAs? Comparing LSU in ‘86 to George Mason in ‘06 is as funny as comparing the ‘79 Quakers to the Patriots.

Villanova, 1985: Aw, come on, this is ridiculous. The Wildcats had two future first-round NBA picks, Ed Pinckney (10th overall, 1985) and Harold Pressley (17th, 1986). Another starter, Dwayne McClain, also played briefly in the league. Is there a single player on George Mason’s roster who’s even on the NBA’s radar? Villanova was a veteran tournament team that had gone to the Sweet 16 or beyond the previous three years. Comparing ‘Nova in ‘85 to GMU in ‘06 is an even bigger knee-slapper than the other two comparisons.

So there you have it, folks. The George Mason Patriots are the best NCAA tournament story we’ve ever seen.

Oh, and that circulation number again at The Washington Times is 202/636-3333. I’m pretty sure we take Visa.

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