A George Mason win would have more than mid-major impact

March 26, 2006

WASHINGTON -- For the good of the sport of college basketball, George Mason has to win today.

For all of the hooting and hollering about mid-majors, RPIs, strengths of schedule, power conferences, at-large bids, being "in the room" and Billy Packer the past two weeks to mean anything, George Mason has to beat Connecticut this afternoon at the Verizon Center.

To steal a line from everybody's favorite sports underdog movie, Hoosiers, for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here, George Mason has to make it to the Final Four.

Parity is more prevalent in college basketball now than it ever has been, and the past two weekends of NCAA tournament play have put it on display for the nation as never before. Good, even great, players are no longer the sole property of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East and the rest of the power conferences. Good coaches have always come from the smallest, most out-of-the-way places -- in fact, that's where teams in the power conferences (like Connecticut) find them (like Jim Calhoun).

The result? Neither team in today's regional final is convinced that UConn can't lose or that Mason can't win.

The problem, though, lies both in perception and reality. The perception is that George Mason, the 11th seed and the afterthought from the crummy little Colonial Athletic Association, is still David, and Connecticut is Goliath.

Never mind that, as Patriots coach Jim Larranaga said he reminds his players, "If the name on our jersey was not George Mason, if it was Georgia Tech from the ACC, everyone would look at this differently." Or that, as Calhoun said, "There are kids on the George Mason team, without question, that would be very comfortable playing at Connecticut."

The reality? "David has not won the national championship yet," Larranaga said.

The truth is that the carriages that take Cinderellas through those exhilarating first weekends every year turn back into pumpkins the second weekend. As long as that happens, mid-majors will continue to be stuck with what many of them consider a negative label.

Every year, these programs and their conferences make their pitches to get more seats at the table, then prove several points early, when March Madness' reputation is enhanced by the slew of what once were considered "upsets."

It may or may not cost those schools and leagues what they want when the Wisconsin-Milwaukees, Nevadas, Butlers, Kent States and Tulsas (or, this year, Wichita States and Bradleys) hit the inevitable wall a step or two short of the Final Four.

All that's for certain is that 50 weeks later, the same arguments crop up, the upstarts turn the first two rounds upside down, and the 1s and 2s then proceed into April. Meanwhile, the mid-major coaches see the light and move up to the big leagues

"The second-most difficult thing in sports is building a program," said Calhoun, alluding to his mid-major days at Northeastern, where he built a program and a career around the kid who couldn't crack the starting lineup at Dunbar High, Reggie Lewis.

"The most difficult thing," Calhoun continued, "is sustaining it."

It's a vicious cycle, one that belies the hype about the tournament's democratic nature.

George Mason can break that cycle today.

Poor Gonzaga continues to fail in its quest. It would have so much more of an impact on the program, and every program that started out the way it did back in the late 1990s, had Adam Morrison been bawling uncontrollably during the final possession of the national semifinal, instead of the regional semifinal.

Morrison, of course, is the symbol for those schools and the sort of players that develop there. George Mason's roster is packed with them, players who are convinced that the only thing that makes their opponents "elite" by comparison is the name on the jersey. Players like Folarin Campbell and Tony Skinn, who are just crazy enough to admit before the world that when they signed with Mason they dreamed of Final Fours the same way kids headed to UConn and Duke do.

"That's the reason I came to George Mason," Campbell said, explaining that he figured the Patriots would be good enough to win the CAA and take their chances in the tournament.

No school like George Mason, a low-seeded mid-major, has crashed the party since Penn in 1979. Connecticut could put an end to this today and reduce the whole debate to mere chatter that fills up the time between Selection Sunday and baseball's Opening Day.

If George Mason wins, however, everything about college basketball that's been on the verge of changing truly will change.

Mason must win. For all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.

Clap ... clap ... clap ...

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

Before we give the NCAA tournament selection committee a Nobel Prize for putting George Mason in, let's remember that it also invited Seton Hall, Utah State, Air Force and Wisconsin. And left Hofstra out.

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