- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2016

Jai Lewis stopped tracking his steps at Halstead Academy. His knees and ankles don’t ache like they did when he played basketball internationally for six years, but he quickly realized there was no sense in recording the 12,000 steps he takes each day as he roams the hallways as a behavioral specialist at the school in Parkville, Maryland.

Lewis is a giant here. He ducks his shoulders as he squeezes his 6-foot-7 frame through doorways, peeking into classrooms to make sure everything is orderly. He has an imposing presence, the type that comes naturally for somebody who towers over the elementary school students he supervises, but it’s one Lewis counters with a gentle demeanor.

“Your shoes are untied,” he tells a student at her locker, a smile spreading across his face once the girl looks down only to remember she’s wearing boots without any laces. He laughs when a teacher falls for the same ruse at lunch.
“I feel like I’m a big kid myself,” Lewis said. “Even though we’re here to work, I like to make it not so mundane. All work and no play makes for a dull day.”

After making his rounds, Lewis retreats to his office and waits for calls until he has to supervise lunch. Other than some intermittent chatter on his two-way radio, it’s fairly quiet. It’s in these moments, especially during the first two weeks of March as the NCAA tournament approaches, when Lewis‘ mind wanders.

He has fleeting thoughts of the improbable run George Mason made to the Final Four in 2006, a run that changed college basketball for years to follow. Lewis, then a senior forward, dominated the paint as the Patriots, a mid-major team from the CAA, slayed one power-conference giant after another to advance to Indianapolis. George Mason’s dream ended when it lost to Florida in the national semifinals, but the unknown team from Fairfax had already made its mark.

This year, on the 10th anniversary, those thoughts linger a little longer. It’s not the games that Lewis thinks about as much as the camaraderie that tied together the fun-loving, free-spirited bunch that had nothing to lose. As the years pass, Lewis and the members of that team have a greater appreciation of what they accomplished and the lasting impression they left on the game after they did what no other No. 11 seed has done since.

“I wish I could go in a time machine and do it all over again,” Lewis said.

Suspending belief

George Mason began the tournament with a 75-65 win against Michigan State, which reached the Final Four the year prior. It was special in the sense that it was the school’s first tournament win, but also because the Patriots did it despite the absence of senior guard Tony Skinn.

Skinn, the team’s second-leading scorer behind Lewis, was suspended for the game after he punched Hofstra player Loren Stokes in the groin in the Patriots’ loss in the semifinals of the CAA tournament.

“We used it as extra motivation so [Tony] didn’t end his career that way in a loss,” Lewis said.

With Gabe Norwood starting in Skinn’s place, the Patriots prevailed, though the end of their journey seemed imminent with a matchup looming against reigning national champion North Carolina.

In the opening minutes, the Tar Heels blindsided George Mason with a 16-2 run and appeared poised to run away with a victory and deliver a swift end to the Patriots’ magical season.

They had already earned the CAA’s first at-large bid in 20 years despite a loss to Hofstra — their second to the Pride in 10 days — that was not received gently. The most memorable detractor was CBS broadcaster Billy Packer, who nitpicked the Patriots’ schedule during the selection show and detailed why he felt their bid should have gone to a high-major.

George Mason entered the NCAA tournament with a 23-7 record. Hofstra finished 25-6 after losing to UNC-Wilmington in the conference championship. If the Patriots were destined to become Cinderella, Hofstra was the scorned stepsister.

Fast forward to Dayton, where North Carolina was pummeling George Mason, and it was all about to come crashing down.

“Once the game started and we were down, I think the world was like, ‘This is why they don’t really belong,’” Lewis said. “Bill Packer said a lot of things about us not belonging, and in that four-minute span, he probably felt justified for what he was saying.”

Larranaga called his first timeout when George Mason trailed, 13-2, and had another chance to refocus his team at the first media timeout and the score 16-5. Tom Yeager, who’s now in his 31st and final year as CAA commissioner, was sitting behind the George Mason bench.

“We’re basically in the team huddle,” Yeager said. “[I remember] Jim’s masterful coaching job all the way through, keeping everyone loose and focused among everything else. He was constantly calm and constantly in a positive place, even when things weren’t going so good.”

As George Mason mounted its comeback, the Patriots’ confidence was blooming. In the second half and with the score tied, 30-30, Folarin Campbell, who now plays professionally in Poland, secured a rebound and drove the length of the court. North Carolina’s Bobby Frasor tried to take a charge and was called for a blocking foul. As Campbell got up, he turned and pointed to the camera, as if to tell everybody to watch for the 65-60 victory that followed.

“There’s been games, close games, that team was never just serious,” said former guard Lamar Butler, who is now an assistant coach on the varsity team at St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase. “Nobody was really uptight. We just liked to have fun.”

Except for starting forward Will Thomas, that is.

“He’d only say three words,” Butler recalled. “‘Let’s go, man.’ That’s how you knew he was hyped.”

Advancing to the Sweet 16 meant a game at Verizon Center, just 20 minutes from George Mason’s campus. The Patriots faced Wichita State, which they had beat, 70-67, on Feb. 19, which bumped them into the top 25 for the first time in school history and helped secure an at-large bid.

George Mason won, 63-55, to advance to the Elite Eight against UConn, the 2004 national champion and a team with five future NBA players.

“It was so special being so close to home, having so many fans at Verizon Center,” said Larranaga, now the coach at Miami, the No. 3 seed in this year’s South regional.

“The fans in Northern Virginia and the D.C. area adopted us.”
The days before the Elite Eight, UConn players famously failed to name anybody on George Mason’s roster or what conference they played in, which fueled the Patriots.

“You either didn’t pay attention to the scouting report or it was just disrespect,” Butler said. “I don’t think there was a guy in that locker room that wasn’t ready to play.”

The Patriots led UConn, 74-72, with 5.5 seconds remaining. Skinn missed the front-end of a one-and-one, and Huskies guard Denham Brown forced overtime with a layup as time expired.

In overtime, Lewis had a chance to ice the game but missed two free throws. Brown got the rebound and his 3-pointer fell short. George Mason won the game, 86-84, and joined UCLA, LSU and Florida in the Final Four — the lowest seed to do so since LSU did it in 1986.

“At George Mason, the team we were playing was expected to win and the general fan expected us to lose,” Larranaga said. “We took advantage of that and really created in our players’ minds that we were every bit as good as the team we were playing and the pressure was on them.”

Writing the script

Verne Lundquist gets asked the question all the time: Was the line scripted? After George Mason beat UConn, the CBS broadcaster, who is now entering his 32nd season calling the tournament, bellowed, “By George, the dream is alive!”

“I just remember there was an air of invincibility to UConn and it seemed to me in that setting, the drama gets heightened,” Lundquist said. “You can’t really pre-plan that kind of stuff.”

By the time George Mason arrived in Indianapolis, hardly anything was scripted. Former Butler coach Brad Stevens, now coach of the Boston Celtics, was following the Patriots intensely. Stevens, who joined Butler’s coaching staff at age 23 and was named its coach in 2007 when he was 30, was fiercely dedicated to a mid-major team then in the Horizon League. Larranaga, whose son, Jay, is now an assistant with Stevens, also had a tight relationship with Butler athletic director Barry Collier.

George Mason run finally ended with a loss to Florida, 73-58, in the Final Four. The Gators, another team stocked with NBA talent, went on to win their first of consecutive national championships. The Patriots’ dreams were dashed, but the precedent had been set. For mid-major coaches such as Stevens, the mindset had suddenly changed.

Stevens and Butler continued to rock college basketball’s boat when the Bulldogs advanced to consecutive national championship games in 2010 and 2011.

“When they made the run, they’re there in town and it’s twofold when you’ve spent your whole life at the mid-major level, it’s like, man, you can get over that hump,” Stevens said. “You can make it, and they not only made it, they made it through a gauntlet of very high-profile teams to get there. The second part is we had come close a couple of times and you’re just kind of biting your lip, like you want to do it. I do think there were some real positives from that run from an inspirational standpoint to the teams that followed up.”

In 2011, Yeager relived the George Mason thrill. The CAA had three teams in the tournament: Old Dominion, which won the conference championship, and VCU and George Mason as at-large bids. VCU joined Butler that year in the Final Four. In 2013, the trend continued when Wichita State advanced to the Final Four as the No. 9 seed after earning an at-large bid out of the Missouri Valley Conference.

“[George Mason‘s] run really changed a lot of internal attitudes,” Yeager said. “It wasn’t just you can win the lottery. Someone really did. It changed the thinking quite a bit.”

Skinn, now an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech, said it was hard to realize the impact George Mason made at the time.

“As a 21, 22-year-old, you don’t really understand,” Skinn said. “You’re just playing in it … trying to go as far as you can. Historically, it’s never been done that, a team out of the Washington D.C. area people had no clue about. They do now. Those four or five days [leading up to the Final Four] were unreal. It was fun to be on campus. It was almost like being a rock star.”

By George Mason reaching the Final Four, combined with UNC-Wilmington’s automatic bid into the tournament, the CAA earned a $6 million payout that was distributed to the entire conference over the next six years. According to a university study, it’s estimated that George Mason received $1.8 million of that payout. Merchandise sales at the book store ballooned to $800,000 in March 2006, up from $625,000 the entire 2004-05 academic year. Season ticket sales spiked and the Patriots led the conference in average attendance the following season.

Equally as impressive as the monetary impact is the value the Patriots’ performance still holds today. At Louisiana Tech, where Skinn also assists in recruiting, he explains to parents and prospective student-athletes the joy of proving everybody wrong at the mid-major level. He tells them it’s not a pipe dream, either, but that he lived it.

“Just being not so far removed from the process helps out, especially with parents,” Skinn said. “They do remember that George Mason team. That’s what it’s about, especially at this level. I explain that this can happen, it continues to happen, and let’s make it happen again.”

Lewis can’t help but wonder when it will happen next. When the bracket is announced each year, he always looks for the No. 11 seed and ponders whether one is a candidate to reach the Final Four.

“The next time it happens, we’ll no longer be relevant,” Lewis said.

When it does, the George Mason’s 2005-06 team will always be able to stake claim as the first mid-major to notch such colossal victories.

It’s unlikely anybody will do it with as much flair.

“In the Final Four, it was like when you’re in school and you have to circle the thing that doesn’t fit,” Lewis said. “We were the team that didn’t fit. I’m glad there was doubt. Without the doubt, it wouldn’t put that fire beneath us.”

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