Cinderella’s Still Dancin’ George Mason Makes it to the Final Four

By Carla Peay
Updated: March 29, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Cinderella is still at the ball. The glass slipper still fits. The carriage hasn’t turned back into a pumpkin just yet; it’s heading toward Indianapolis. David has knocked out Goliath not with a slingshot, but with a right uppercut to the jaw. It’s the revenge of the Mid-majors.

Tired of the clichés yet? They’ve all been used these past few days to describe the delightfully improbable run of the “little school that could”, the George Mason Patriots. A controversial selection to the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid, it’s unlikely that anyone other than Mason alums had the team going beyond round one. Talk about your bracket-busters. But the scrappy, hard working Mason hoopsters, who exemplify what it means to play as a team, had other ideas.

In round one, the 11th seeded George Mason Patriots knocked off 6th seed Michigan State. In round two, they took out 3rd seed North Carolina. In round three, they defeated 7th seed Wichita State. And in a shocker that long-time college basketball experts are calling the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, they knocked out top-seed Connecticut to earn a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend. One of the last five at large teams to even be selected to the tournament, George Mason defeated three of the last six NCAA Champions when they took out Michigan State (2000), North Carolina (2005) and Connecticut (2004), the overwhelming favorite, even over perennial powerhouse Duke, to win the tournament.

While George Mason is clearly the story of this tournament, the back story has to be the so-called revenge of the mid majors. The Patriots belong to the Colonial Athletic Association, (or as head coach Jim Larranaga now famously quipped to his team before the UConn game, the “Connecticut Assassins Association” ), not the power conferences like the ACC, the Big Ten, or the Big East. The best players coming out of high school, if they go to college at all, nearly always chose the major conferences, stay one to two years, and then head off to the NBA. Some college basketball analysts, most notably CBS’ Billy Packer, suggested that too many schools from smaller conferences were invited to the tournament this year, and that more schools from the larger conferences should have been chosen.

Can George Mason’s improbable run to the Final Four be thought of as vindication for all those smaller schools? And just how happy are those talented, easy to coach kids who go to George Mason, largely because major conference schools wouldn’t give them the time of day?

Every starter on the floor for the Patriots is a local kid. There’s Jai Lewis from Aberdeen. Will Thomas from Baltimore. Folarin Campbell from Silver Spring. Tony Skinn from Takoma Park. And Lamar Butler from Fort Washington. This delightful bunch of kids and their coach, Jim Larranaga, are the talk of the college basketball world, and deservedly so. In no game were they the benefactors of lucky calls, injuries, or just a flat-out bad game by an opponent. Every step of the way, the George Mason Patriots simply out played their competition by playing a better brand of team basketball. If you can stand yet another cliché, this is not a group of individual stars. This is a team.

Many will say that just by making it to the Final Four, George Mason has already won its championship. They have quite literally shocked the basketball world. But one look at the faces of the players on this team, the determination of their coach, the jubilation not only on the Mason campus but in the Washington D.C. area as a whole, and you know that this team has as good a chance as any to win this tournament. The case can be made that they have already defeated better teams than the teams that are remaining. In a season this improbable, who could seriously count the Patriots out? No one who believes in miracles and dreams.