- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

George Mason University has turned the college basketball order upside-down, no doubt.

The Patriots meet many of the prerequisites of the long-shot underdog after defeating Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to advance to the Final Four.

Yet, the Patriots would not be on their way to Indianapolis if the power conferences of college basketball were the same entities of a generation ago instead of the layover stations of the most gifted today.

The Patriots would not have wanted to meet the North Carolina team of Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants, each of whom bolted to the NBA after leading the Tar Heels to the national championship last season.

That foursome, or a variation of it, would have been on the floor against the Patriots in Dayton, Ohio, in the ‘80s.

Instead, the Patriots competed against a talented but largely inexperienced team. And that discrepancy in experience has been no small element in the ascendancy of the Patriots.

Patriots guard Lamar Butler is a fifth-year player. That species among elite players is almost extinct in the power conferences today. The last one who comes to mind is Juan Dixon, and all he did was lead Maryland to the national championship in his senior season.

Along with the experience differential, there is the age differential. There is a considerable physical difference between an 18- or 19-year-old player and a 21- or 22-year-old one.

Those two elements — age and experience — have allowed the teams in the mid-major conferences to neutralize in part the unrefined athletic and size advantages of the teams from the major conferences.

In that context, the Patriots’ elimination of Connecticut in the Washington, D.C., Region final is not as historically compelling as it might seem.

The Huskies performed in the manner of a disjointed AAU team stuffed with a bunch of agenda-driven All-Stars. In the case of the Huskies, the agenda is the NBA Draft in June and being conscious of the almost infinite number of evaluations on the Internet detailing the rising or plummeting stock of the collegians.

At one heated point in the GMU-UConn game, Hilton Armstrong let it be known to his teammates to get out of his face as they attempted to calm him.

His reaction is unusual among teammates who genuinely like one another, which leads to the suspicion the Huskies were not necessarily in it for each other. They were in it to audition for the NBA scouts.

And in the tournament, it showed as they played like so many mismatched parts. They needed a late rally to defeat Albany, a prayer or two to outlast Kentucky and a tiny miracle to upend Washington.

The Patriots are a team in every sense. They have no NBA Draft concerns. Or they shouldn’t. This can be liberating to the psyche, plus beneficial to coach Jim Larranaga. He does not have to sell his players on the merit of playing as a unit, of sticking to the game plan, because the alternative is patently obvious.

It is no wonder the Patriots have five players averaging in double figures.

Their scoring distribution is dictated in part on how the opposition reacts to their offensive sets. They do not have a star. They have five players on the floor who recognize their limitations. Those limitations are only exposed if they deviate from their ball-sharing mind-set.

Their basketball intellect is powerful enough to overcome the size and athletic advantages of the opposition in a favorable venue, as playing 20 miles from campus turned out to be.

If the Patriots and Huskies played 10 times, it would not be a stretch to think the Patriots could prevail two or three times.

Even as NBA worthy as the Huskies are said to be, theirs is a watered-down version from yesteryear.

Not too long ago, this might have been the Final Four of LeBron James and his precocious kind littering the rosters of the NBA.

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