Nobody beats George Mason as tournament's media star

March 24, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --In an NCAA regional that features two mid-major surprise teams playing each other tonight and a No. 5 seed facing one of the favorites to win the whole shoot-em-up, the hardest thing to figure out during yesterday's media/practice session at Verizon Center was which team to cast as Cinderella.

It's a little confusing, since the team that appears to have the worst chance to advance to the Elite Eight is the fifth-seeded Washington Huskies, though they were seeded above both Wichita State and George Mason when the tournament began.

The vagaries of the draw have made the Pac-10 regular-season runner-up the underdog by default since Washington faces No. 1 seed Connecticut, but George Mason coach Jim Larranaga didn't waste time reminding everyone during his news conference who is the media darling of March Madness.

"The amount of exposure we've gotten, I don't know how to des- cribe it," Larranaga said. "It's overwhelming. It's been nonstop from Sunday evening until right now."

He went on to enumerate the national media entities that have featured the upstart Patriots since they knocked off No. 3 North Carolina to advance to the Sweet 16.

"The articles in the newspaper, we're local here, The Washington Post, the Times, Potomac News -- but to have the New York Times, the Daily News and the New York Post and the L.A. Times coming in, and the Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution," he said. "All of these people from all over the country are coming to our campus to interview us.

"And then you talk about the TV exposure where you have CBS, of course, and ESPN and NBC, Comcast, who televises our games. ... The guys have been on ESPN GameDay and last night I was on Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith. It's like, this is ridiculous. PTI. Cold Pizza."

Larranaga actually left out the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, but who's counting? He dropped so many names that a reporter from ESPN prefaced a question by saying, "First of all, thanks for naming every show we air."

Actually, Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon can make a better Cinderella case for the Shockers, since they lost to George Mason at home this year and now must face them in an arena that is just 20 miles from the Mason campus.

The underdog role is so coveted in this year's tournament that I almost went around to the locker rooms -- except UConn's -- to find out "Who Isn't The Man."

If you watch a live feed from any of the March Madness news conferences, you'll probably notice that the moderators always refer to the players as "student athletes," and that is not a coincidence. The NCAA requires them to be introduced that way.

It's no secret why NCAA officials want to drive home the point that these kids are student athletes, but the lack of subtlety all but spotlights the institutional insecurity about the low graduation rates of many Division I programs.

Sports author John Feinstein found the practice so grating, he actually tried to pay interview room moderators Phil Warshauer (Greensboro) and Pete Kowalski (Philadelphia) to refer to the "student athletes" as players.

"I said, `I'll give you 100 bucks right now to just call them players once,' " Feinstein said. "They said they couldn't do it or they would lose their jobs. One of the guys said he couldn't because the NCAA has rules against gambling. I told him this has nothing to do with gambling. I'm offering you a bribe."

Tonight's game between the Huskies and the Huskies is scheduled to begin at 9:57 p.m., which means that it likely will end well after midnight.

"There's nothing we can do about that," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "They want as many people as possible to see these two teams play. ...We once ended a game against Florida in the Sweet 16 at 1:03.

"I'd like to see us work on that harder. When you're playing a game theoretically that will go past 12 at night, the game may not be as competitive as it could be."

Turgeon doesn't think that one surprising NCAA tournament run is going to change the recruiting profile of his program.

"I was an assistant at Oregon, and one of my best friends is Mark Few at Gonzaga," Turgeon said. "They made the final eight and it didn't change their recruiting. Then they went to the Sweet 16 twice and that did. It took them three years."

How big is 6-foot-7, 275-pound George Mason forward Jai Lewis?

"He's Jai-normous," said one reporter at yesterday's news conference ... and it wasn't Mr. Flip.

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