Does March Madness have an impact on college admissions statistics? Tomorrow, the NCAA Tournament begins and so we thought it would be nice to share with you a story about how one team’s Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament impacted the university. While this particular school is not a highly selective college our students at Ivy Coach target, the impact of the team’s tournament run on the university’s admissions standards and academics applies to every college — including the highly selective ones. To read more on this topic, check out our blogs on Princeton’s victory over Harvard for the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament or the impact of March Madness on college admissions.
But today is for George Mason — because the school and this team deserve it. Below is the story of George Mason’s remarkable run to the NCAA Final Four and the impact of that run on the university and on our country. A team member here at Ivy Coach happens to be a personal friend of GMU Coach Jim Larranaga and so below is our team member’s account of GMU’s remarkable college basketball performance.
The George Mason University bookstore typically has sales of $11,000 per week. During the ten day run to the Final Four, the bookstore took in $876,000 (a figure that exceeded the bookstore’s sales for the entire previous year). They sold 36,000 t-shirts.
The team, which notably graduates 100% of its players, had an immediate, remarkable impact on the appeal of George Mason University to high school students as well as to the university’s selectivity. The school experienced a 350% increase in inquiries and out-of-state applications went up by 54%. SAT scores and high school GPAs of admitted students went up exponentially.
Droves of alumni began donating money to the university. Hits on the school’s athletic site went up 503% and there were 5 million Yahoo! “Mason Final Four” searches. The George Mason basketball team put George Mason University on the map in more than just basketball. They were a colossal adrenaline boost to the university’s lure and academic rigor.
At this time, in this season, in this tournament, the fittingly named Patriots of George Mason University would write their own script. They would marvel fans, coaches, opponents, and the press. This suburban commuter school that was a somewhat controversial selection for the NCAA Tournament would, in no uncertain terms, become America’s team, America’s hope, “savoring an underdog’s moment, and hoping for a miracle.”
This is the inspirational story of mighty underdog mid-major George Mason’s storybook run to the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four. There have been occasions in the history of sports when there is more riding on the outcome of a contest than mere victory or defeat. In these special, albeit rare, occasions, an individual’s or a team’s accomplishment can transcend the insular world of sports entirely and, in doing so, inspire a nation. Some of these stories may come to mind. The fighting boys of Lake Placid and their Miracle on Ice. Rulon Gardner’s golden wrestling triumph over the Russian, Alexander Karelin, at the 2000 Olympic Games. Joe Namath’s Jets’ win over the mighty Baltimore Colts. Mark Spitz’s, and later Michael Phelps’, string of swimming golds. And in our country’s most popular sport, George Mason’s astonishing Cinderella run to the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four.
Their story is one that had its beginnings well before the unforgettable triumphs against seemingly unbeatable basketball powerhouses that sent shockwaves across the country and around the world. Before David could take down Goliath after Goliath to fulfill his improbable destiny, David first needed to build a basketball program that could, one day if every star magically aligned go point for point, rebound for rebound, with the greatest teams in the land.
Their story began years earlier with the hiring of Coach Jim Larranaga. The Bronx-born Larranaga grew up with a basketball in his hands. Graduating from Jack Curran’s well-regarded program at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, a school that has produced numerous NBA players and prospects, Larranaga went on to attend Providence College, where he served as captain his senior year and led his team to a 20-8 record in addition to a bid in the NIT. He graduated (with an economics degree) as the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer and was later inducted into the Providence College Hall of Fame. While selected in the 1971 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, Larranaga opted not to pursue an NBA playing career. A passion for coaching, for leading teams, and for shaping the character of young men, ran through his veins. Coaching was his calling.
Like the more famous Larry Brown, the understated Larranaga has a reputation in the basketball community for building programs, for transforming lackluster teams into formidable opponents. After paying his dues as an assistant at Davidson College, Larranaga was offered a head coaching job at American International College and quickly transformed a program that had finished with a losing record in each of the previous five seasons into a winner. The highlight of this climb was a surprising, foreshadowing win over the Jim-Calhoun coached Northeastern University. Little did either of these men know at the time that, many years in the future, this same man would engineer one of the most memorable upsets in the history of sports when Calhoun’s mighty #1 ranked UConn team would fall to Larranaga’s mid-major George Mason University in the NCAA Elite Eight.
Larranaga would then re-team with his old Davidson College mentor, Terry Holland, as his assistant at ACC power University of Virginia, where Larranaga had the chance to coach a very special basketball player by the name of Ralph Sampson. These teams would win one NIT title and advance to the NCAA Final Four on two occasions. One small footnote during this run was Chaminade’s monumental upset of the Sampson-led Virginia, one of the only occasions Larranaga was on the other side of a basketball shocker. After Virginia, it was off to Bowling Green State University where Larranaga would, in his first year, add eight wins on top of the previous year’s victory tally. He left the university, after eleven years, as the second-winningest coach in the university’s history, orchestrating upsets of Michigan State on two occasions, Ohio State, Kentucky, Purdue, and Penn State University.
Larranaga would move on to George Mason University. Upon meeting his first team in the Patriot Center locker room, Larranaga told his players that in order to be successful, to be on par with the Dukes, the Carolinas, and the Michigan States, they must first know the formula for success. He asked his team for the ingredients of this formula. They responded: “Discipline. Hard work. Mental toughness. Teamwork.” One of his players, freshman Ahmad Dorsett, responded, “Gear.” Larranaga asked him why he thought gear was important to Mason’s success. Dorsett said that Duke, Carolina, and great teams like those had great swag. Larranaga then asked his team if they thought gear was important. There were lots of shoulder shrugs. Responded Larranaga, “Of course it’s important. How you look often effects how you feel and how you feel effects how you perform. If we are going to be first class, then we must act first class in every way. If we are going to be first class, we must act first class, behave first class, look first class.” He then pointed to 6’10 Australian center, Nik Mirich, who sported a full beard with shoulder-length hair and a shirt full of stains, “Does Nik look like a Duke or Carolina player?” The team laughed and said he looked more like a rock star. A week later, Nick shaved off the beard and his hair looked more Beaver Cleaver. After the university president and his wife had a conversation with the newly clean-shaven Australian, the president, a big basketball fan who would have surely recognized Nik with his old hairstyle, asked his wife who that big fella was he had just encountered. When his wife told him, he called and left a voicemail for Coach Larranaga: “I saw Nik. Whatever you are doing, keep it up. It’s working.”
Little could the coach have ever imagined in his wildest dreams that his decision to coach this program, that his formula for success, would lead to the greatest Cinderella story in the history of collegiate athletics. When Larranaga arrived, the play-in game to the conference tournament was known as the George Mason game because Mason was habitually the last place team in the CAA. Larranaga’s first season ended with a 9-18 record. The next year — 19-11, a Colonial Athletic Association regular season title, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Larranaga would lead Mason to another NCAA tournament in addition to two NIT appearances before that awe-inspiring 2006 campaign that would change his life, the lives of his players, and the reputation of his school forever.
The 2005-2006 George Mason team was led by its three senior captains: Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, and graduate student Lamar Butler (he red-shirted a year due to injury). Balancing out the starting lineup were sophomores Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell. While other players would earn playing time in Mason’s historic run (e.g., Gabe Norwood in filling in for Skinn during the first round match-up against Michigan St.), Larranaga’s rotation generally ran six deep. It is also noteworthy that two key Mason players who were stalwarts on the defensive end, Jesus Urbina and sixth-man John Vaughan, were lost to injury early in the season.
UNIQUE RECRUITMENT PHILOSOPHY
Larranaga employs a unique, though risky, recruitment strategy. “This season’s unusual roster is a direct result of the recruiting philosophy Larranaga outlined during his job interview nine years ago. He imagined a circle with a diameter about 150 miles and George Mason’s Fairfax campus in the middle, and said he would build his program from within that circle. The Patriots have several stars from Northern Virginia, but with so much of the area’s talent concentrated across the Potomac, Larranaga and his assistants constructed an interstate bypass considerably more efficient than the Capital Beltway.”
Said Bill Courtney, Mason’s former recruiting coordinator, “We tried to get the best guys from the state of Maryland.” Lewis is from Aberdeen. Thomas from Baltimore. Vaughan from Lanham. Skinn, Butler, and Campbell all from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
On Larranaga’s 32nd wedding anniversary, he promised his wife and mother-in-law a nice dinner after a summer league game that he could not have missed for scouting purposes. “In truth, most Division I coaches would have been hundreds of miles from Prince George’s county that day, attending high-powered amateur tournaments across the country. Larranaga was closer to home, part of a concerted effort to persuade local players to select George Mason over better-known schools from bigger conferences…That strategy has made George Mason…the only Division I school in the country with an all-Maryland starting lineup.”
JAI LEWIS – “Gutsy, workman-like senior who gets the job done down low.” Jai was also encouraged by Larranaga to shoot the three-ball. It opened up space inside for Thomas not to mention the guy could shoot 40% from long range. He’s undersized for the center position, but he’s got so much heart…so much heart that the New York Giants football team gave him a chance to make their team after his college playing days. Says Larranaga, “Jai Lewis has been a mentor to several of our younger players. Jai is a quiet leader. He works his magic by getting to know his teammates and advising them from his own personal experiences.”
LAMAR BUTLER – “One of the team’s top scoring threats also is one of its best defenders.” Mason’s all-time leading 3-point shot-maker. He ended his career as one of the top players in Mason history. Says Larranaga, “He is warm and friendly to everyone he meets. He has devoted countless hours to helping us recruit our underclassmen…he has sacrificed his social life on weekends to host almost every recruit that visits Mason.” Butler is known for his pearly white smile but just a few weeks before the tournament, he was in the midst of a shooting slump. He was worried that Coach Larranaga was going to pull him from the starting lineup. But Larranaga insisted that his best games were ahead of him and asked his dad to come to practice to reinforce to his son what a great shooter he is. Boy did this work! During the tournament, Lamar was fascinated by the media attention paid to all of the major basketball programs. Lamar’s father, Butler Sr., was there throughout his son’s college career cheering him on, sitting behind the bench for virtually every game in every small stadium across the country.
TONY SKINN – “Wily veteran keeps the offense running smoothly.” Mr. Clutch. Plays with passion and ferocity. Skinn was the antithesis of the blue chip recruit, flying under everybody’s radar and surprising even Coach Larranaga. Skinn played ball for two community colleges before an assistant coach of Larranaga’s, Bill Courtney, discovered Skinn at Hagerstown Community College. Larranaga was skeptical that Skinn would be able to compete for George Mason if nobody recruited him. But after flying back from Kansas to watch Skinn play in a pickup game, Larranaga fell in love. What impressed him most about Skinn was that he was willing to sit out his second year of junior college ball so that he could attend a D1 school and graduate. His dream was not to play in the NBA. His dream was to graduate from college. Says Larranaga, “He has poured his heart and soul into the program. Of all the guys on the team, Tony has overcome the most to earn everyone’s respect. He is constantly pushing himself and everyone around him. He wasn’t an instant starter when he arrived here just over two years ago. However, by the end of his first season, he was taking and making one big shot after another on our way to the best record in Mason history.”
FOLARIN “SHAQ” CAMPBELL – the leading scorer for Mason in the NCAA tournament. Initially a wingman, Larranaga chose to move Folarin to the point and Skinn, a shoot first point guard, to the wing. This was surely a risky move of Larranaga’s, but it paid off big time. Late in the season, Folarin’s grandmother died and the player asked Larranaga if he could attend the funeral. Larranaga, who always puts family first, said of course. Folarin elaborated that the funeral would be in Nigeria and he would have to miss a couple weeks of the season. His absence would have essentially ended any hope of postseason play for the Patriots but there was nothing Larranaga could do about it. Family first. Basketball second. Larranaga went by Folarin’s house to pay his respects and he explained to the player’s father, Festus, a hard working engineer with a thick African accent, how important Folarin is to the team’s success. Said Festus, “Coach L., you are like family. I understand how hard you work, how hard the team works and how hard Folarin works…I will call you tomorrow.” The next day, Festus called Coach Larranaga and told him, “Last night I prayed to me [sic] mom and she told me that Folarin should stay here and help the team make March Madness and come pay his respects to her after the season. Now, let’s be sure to tell the boys to keep playing well.” Festus was there videotaping every game from the sideline, proud as a father could be.
Also on the team: Jesus Urbina. “Born and raised in Venezuela. His first language is Spanish. He left his family and came to this country to attend high school at Amelia Academy in Richmond, Va., when he was 16 years old. His dream was to graduate from college and play basketball.”
Makan Konate – from Mali in Africa, whose native tongue is French. “He has been home only twice in the last seven years to see his mother who had been hospitalized. Makan came to this country when he was 16…[his brother] encouraged Makan to do everything possible to come here and live the American dream.”
Gabe Norwood – “He’s lived all over the United States. Gabe’s dad is a football coach at Penn State.”
Charles Makings and Tim Burns are non-scholarship players. Says Larranaga, “Variety is the spice of life.”
REGULAR SEASON / CAA TOURNAMENT
The Patriots finished the regular season with the best record in school history, winning 23 games. During this run, Larranaga became the CAA’s all-time leader in coaching victories. Despite a heartbreaking loss to Hofstra University in the conference tournament, Mason was awarded a surprise at-large bid to The Big Dance. It marked the first time in league history where two CAA teams made the field of sixty-four — UNC Wilmington and George Mason. Hofstra, a team that had beaten George Mason twice over the course of the season, was controversially not selected, instead earning a berth in the NIT.
Larranaga made a point of asking his team to visualize victory — to visualize stunning Michigan State. While just having fun may have been his mantra, visualization was key to his strategy. Following the team’s surprise selection, during a fun baseball game after practice, the gentle 295-pound giant, Jai Lewis, managed to sneak up on his coach and pour a Gatorade jug full of water over his head. When Larranaga asked what he was doing, Lewis responded, “Visualizing, Coach.”
ONE SHINING MOMENT
In the CAA conference tournament, during that second heartbreaking loss of the season to Hofstra, sharp-shooting three-point specialist Tony Skinn made a fateful mistake. In the closing :55 seconds of the game and right after he hit a three-point basket to bring his team within four points of the Pride, Tony Skinn sucker punched Hofstra’s Loren Stokes in the groin. Larranaga didn’t see the punch, but the second he saw Skinn’s guilty face, he knew that his player had done something wrong. He immediately pulled him from the game and after meeting with Mason’s Athletic Director, he opted to voluntarily suspend Skinn from the team’s next game — be it the first round of the NIT or, if they should be so lucky, the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Larranaga’s decision to suspend Tony Skinn is not one that should be overlooked as it speaks louder than any basketball victory to this man’s belief system, to his character. What coach would suspend his second-leading scorer on the game’s biggest stage? It should be noted that George Mason did not seal a bid to the NCAA Tournament. They relied on being selected by a committee, a committee of human beings who factor in such ingredients as key players who are injured or suspended. Larranaga, a moral compass, unquestionably risked his team’s selection to the NCAA Tournament by suspending one of his own top players.
Jim Larranaga is a coach who lives by his principles, and he always has. When his son, Jay, a huge basketball fan who now plays professionally overseas, was a ball boy for the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia, he was so excited to see Sampson take on UNC’s Michael Jordan in a match-up of the ages. But when Larranaga learned that his son had not yet finished his homework, he took his son home to hit the books. While his son was terribly disappointed, he never neglected to do his homework again and excelled as a student. As evidenced by his decision to suspend Tony Skinn, Larranaga would rather teach one of his players a life lesson than win a basketball game. That said, Larranaga knew how hard Skinn was taking the suspension and so sat next to him in the coach’s basement on Selection Sunday before giving the sidelined player the first big hug after the team’s surprise at-large selection.
Said famed Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski on Larranaga’s decision to suspend Skinn for the first game of the NCAA tournament, “It sends chills through my entire body to hear what Jim did. Honestly, if he was [sic] here right now, I’d give him a big hug. We need more coaches to step up in situations like this and say to our kids, ‘That’s wrong; I’m not making excuses for you.’ If I were in the same situation, I hope I’d be gutsy enough to do the same thing, but I can’t swear to you that I would. If a big-name coach did something like that, people would be fitting him for sainthood by tomorrow. Whatever Jim does the rest of his career, any championships he might win, this is as good and as important a thing as he’ll ever do as a coach. I can’t tell you how much I admire him for doing this.”
THE BIG DANCE
The pundits believed they didn’t belong, that their selection was unearned, that they would not be able to compete against perennial power Michigan State. After all, what business did a mid-major school that didn’t even win its conference tournament have being in a field with the greatest teams in college basketball? But the George Mason Patriots did belong and they would make those critics eat EVERY LAST WORD. At this time, in this season, in this tournament, the fittingly named Patriots of George Mason University would write their own script. They would marvel fans, coaches, opponents, and the press. They would, in no uncertain terms, become America’s team, America’s hope, “savoring an underdog’s moment, and hoping for a miracle.”
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
Entering the field of sixty-four as the first team in twenty years to be selected out of the CAA with an at-large bid (the conference also sent UNC Wilmington), George Mason had its work cut out for itself facing a Tom Izzo-coached basketball superpower that went to the Final Four the previous season and was a recent National Champion. And the Patriots would be playing without their second-leading scorer, Tony Skinn.
Skinn would take the suspension in stride and vowed to be the team’s biggest cheerleader, supporting the team from the bench dressed in a suit. He could only hope that his team would give him the opportunity to play again during his collegiate career. After having put up a valiant, albeit losing, effort against Michigan State during the previous regular season (losing by six points), the heavy underdog George Mason squad took it to Michigan State early and dominated loose balls as well as the inside.
Despite cashing in only 10/22 times from the free-throw line in the last 3:32 of the contest, George Mason took down Michigan State, a team that returned four starters from the previous year’s Final Four team. “They out-rebounded Michigan State by 16, blocked six shots, made 59.2 percent from the floor and outscored MSU 32-18 in the lane.” The Spartans needed ten 3-pointers just to stay in range of the Patriots. After taking a 33-30 half-time lead, George Mason saw its lead evaporate with 6:40 left in the game, down by one. But Mason’s crippling man-to-man defense stifled MSU’s attack over the next five minutes. They gained a 61-52 lead before closing out the game on the stripe to take a 75-65 bracket-busting, implausible victory.
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA
After the Michigan State shocker, Coach Larranaga received a call from his son, Jay, who was playing pro basketball in Italy. Jay very much wanted to be with his dad and the Mason team during this improbable run, but his European coach told him that wouldn’t be possible. At 10 PM the night before the Carolina game, as Coach Larranaga was readying for bed, Jay insisted he stay up and read his email in which he delineated a strategy to defeat the defending champs.
The father and son spoke for quite a while on the phone and Jay told his dad that in order to win, Mason would have to capitalize on a turnover prone UNC squad by pressing and forcing TOs. He instructed his dad to hold the press until the second half so that Roy Williams would have little time to make an adjustment. Before the opening tip, Larranaga, who told his team that the UNC fans thought their players were Supermen, asked his squad, “What color is kryptonite, the only thing that can defeat Superman?” The team said, “Green.” Larranaga responded, “Look at what color your uniforms are. You have everything you need to win this game.” The team wanted this win badly. One of Mason’s assistant coaches won a title as a player for UNC. He, too, wanted to take it to his alma mater.
After opening the game down 16-2, things looked bleak for upstart George Mason against the defending champs. During a TV timeout, Larranaga told his team to look down at the Carolina bench. They were all celebrating. But thanks to a newly installed zone defense which the team rarely employed, the Patriots clawed their way out of the deep hole before switching to man-to-man in the second half. At one point during the game, Jay, calling at 4 AM from Italy, told his brother Jon, who was sitting across court and five rows up, “Dad needs to stop running the pick-and-roll. Carolina’s defense is too strong for the pick-and-roll.” Jay insisted that his brother go tell their dad. When Jon told his brother he was sitting too far away, Jay pleaded, “No excuses.”
By installing a half court press at the beginning of the second half, by double and, at times, triple-teaming All-American Tyler Hansbrough of Carolina, and by capitalizing on the inside presence of Will Thomas and Jai Lewis, Mason was able to pull away and take a 65-60 victory in one of the great upsets of our time. Jay’s strategy had been right. In order to take down the prolific Roy Williams, the unassuming Jim Larranaga took advice from his son, the same son who years earlier was very angry at him for making him miss a Jordan-Sampson match-up because he didn’t do his homework.
Esteemed championship coach Roy Williams made a big blunder towards the end of the game, “putting his team in a press during a late timeout because he thought Carolina was down by three. Instead, the score was tied at 54. George Mason broke the press and Butler was fouled, going to the line for two free throws that put the Patriots ahead to stay.” The usually calm and collected Roy Williams dramatically slammed a folding chair ala Bobby Knight.
Said longtime commentator Billy Packer, perhaps the most outspoken critic of Mason’s selection to the NCAA Tournament, on the team’s shocking upset of UNC, “Do you honestly think for one second that a North Carolina team 20 years ago would take a 16-2 lead on George Mason and lose the game? No way. That game is over…But the George Mason kids wouldn’t let them. They’re all kids who weren’t highly recruited, who weren’t considered elite players. They had to learn to compete just to have a chance. They’re not intimidated by the talent of the teams they’re playing. They think they’re good enough to win, and these other teams don’t know how to really dig in and fight them.”
WICHITA STATE UNIVERSITY
Playing only twenty miles from George Mason University, the Patriots had the advantage of Mason faithful out in full force. Chants of “GEORGE. MASON” (Larranaga’s two favorite words in the English language) inspired the team. Led by fourteen points apiece from Butler and Skinn, the Patriots dominated a team that had beaten them in the regular season, going up by as many as nineteen points at one point during the second half en route to a 63-55 win. At the end of the game, “Butler hopped and skipped to the locker room, yelling over and over: ‘We’re not even supposed to be here!'”
UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT
Said Larranaga to his team, “There isn’t any place on earth I would rather be than here with you playing UConn for the right to go to the Final Four. What about you?”
“George Mason’s players stood on the press table, waving their jerseys to the crowd. Coach Jim Larranaga walked around with the nylon net around his neck. It won’t be the same old schools from the same old conferences at this year’s Final Four — certainly not top-seeded University of Connecticut. Buoyed by a partisan crowd and playing some 20 miles from their campus, 11th-seeded George Mason University overcame huge disadvantages in size, athleticism and history Sunday to stun the Huskies 86-84 in overtime, ending a stranglehold that big-time programs have enjoyed for 27 years in college basketball’s biggest showcase. Improbable as it may seem, the powers-that-be are going to have to make room for a suburban commuter school from Fairfax, Va., that was a dicey choice to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.”
The Patriots trailed by as many as 12 late in the first half and 9 in the second. During a timeout, Larranaga told his team that UConn didn’t even know what the CAA stands for. He fired them up by saying they were the “Connecticut Assassin Association.: When Rudy Gay and the #1 Huskies tied the score to force overtime, many thought that would be the end of Mason’s glorious run. But Mason would not go down.
The Patriots shot 5-6 in the OT period en route to a miraculous 86-84 nail-biting victory. “Larranaga’s team kept the same five players in the game from the 10:37 mark of regulation to the very end of overtime. Butler was chosen as the most outstanding player of the regional, and he and his father were in tears as they hugged at length on the court after the game.” Throughout the game, chants of “GMU” and “Let’s Go Mason” reverberated around the arena. In the post-game celebration, GMU fans fittingly chanted “Packer” (the outspoken critic of the school’s selection to the tournament).
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
“The underdog Patriots trotted on the court past the Florida section, which greeted them with Gator chops. But the rest of the crowd seemed to be pulling for George Mason. A fan wearing an LSU shirt held up a ‘Go Mason’ sign. The UCLA fans also cheered every time the Patriots scored. But Florida wasn’t intimidated by the crowd or the knowledge that nearly everyone outside the Sunshine State was pulling for one of the most unlikely teams in Final Four history.”
Ultimately, a 2-0 lead over Joakim Noah’s Florida was Mason’s only lead of the night. A dozen baskets from beyond the three-point arc doomed Mason against the eventual champion Florida Gators in the Final Four game. Winning NCAA Tournament games by an average of 16 points, Florida would go on to win the national championship in dominating fashion over UCLA. They would claim the title the following year as well. Mason would not go down easily as they put up a valiant fight. The final score was closer than the Florida-UCLA title game and few in the crowd at the Mason game ever counted them out. And from this point going forward, “every mid-major will feel like it has a chance to compete with the big boys.”
In advancing to the Final Four, George Mason defeated the previous two National Champions — North Carolina (2005) and Connecticut (2004). GMU was the first team in the history of their league to be ranked in the Top 25 and their win over Michigan State marked the university’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory. During the Final Four, an ESPN survey showed that 46 of the 50 states were cheering for Mason to win it all. Another survey showed that 90% of those surveyed had never heard of George Mason prior to March Madness. One guy who filled out a bracket somehow picked all four Final Four teams. When asked why on earth he picked George Mason, he responded, “Oh, that was a mistake. I thought I was picking George Washington.”
George Mason defied the pecking order of college basketball by dominating pedigree programs and, in so doing, silenced their many critics. They were a Cinderella team that by the tournament’s end wore no proverbial glass slipper but were rather the class of college basketball. They had earned respect and they had brought a nation to its feet.
And Jim Larranaga, their fearless leader at the helm of the program, who earlier in the season wrote articles in the local paper and helped establish a “Patriots Rewards” program (free campus meals in exchange for attending a game) to increase lackluster attendance, had made millions of Americans George Mason Patriot faithful, if only for a while. The team had come a long way from their opening game at Lawrence Joel Coliseum where only a few dozen fans showed and Larranaga’s every word echoed through the deserted building. Said Larranaga to one of his assistants during their improbable run, “We’re not just an at-large team, we’re an at-extra-large. And if we win today, we’re going to be an at-extra-double-large. I can’t tell you how much fun I’m having.” The George Mason Patriots, that little engine that could, had, in no uncertain terms, given hope to Americans and inspired us to believe in the impossible dream coming true. The underdog had its day.
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