Mason closing major gap

No. 11 seed Patriots meet top-seeded Huskies for Final Four berth

Washington Regional

March 26, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- With each NCAA tournament victory this month, the 11th-seeded George Mason men's basketball team made school history, but this afternoon, the Patriots will face their toughest opponent of the season for a trip to the Final Four, and the program's most significant achievement to date.

The implications of an upset over top-seeded Connecticut (30-3) at 2:40 p.m. today at Verizon Center extend beyond George Mason's Fairfax, Va., campus, though, as mid-major debates dominated discussions about this year's bracket selection. The Patriots (26-7) -- a once-obscure program from the Colonial Athletic Association -- were one of the teams questioned by some outsiders as to whether they belonged here in the first place.

And then they knocked off Michigan State, a Final Four team a year ago.

Another win against defending national champion North Carolina followed.

"Everybody is talking about, you know, a lot of schools didn't deserve to be in the tournament," George Mason senior guard Tony Skinn said. "But we knew all we needed was just that stage presence to be able to show everybody what we're capable of doing. We've handled ourselves pretty well with those mid-major teams going far into the tournament as well as our team."

The question now is, can they handle themselves with national power UConn?

It's a daunting task, but given what George Mason has accomplished this month, it's possible. Defense has been the Patriots' foundation, as George Mason held Wichita State to 31.3 percent shooting Friday night, and limited the Tar Heels to 35.9 percent last weekend.

Connecticut turned the ball over a season-high 26 times against Washington and has yet to truly shine in this tournament. The Huskies, who trailed by 12 to 16th-seeded Albany in the first round, overcame an 11-point deficit to win in overtime against Washington.

"They're the No.1 seed," said Baltimore native Will Thomas, the Patriots' best defensive player. "They come in here thinking they can beat anybody. I don't think they're intimidated by us at all."

UConn has won 10 Big East regular-season and six tournament titles in the past 16 years, while George Mason lost in the semifinals of the CAA tournament.

The Huskies have won two national championships, in 1999 and 2004. Connecticut has been to the Elite Eight seven times, while this entire scene is new to the Patriots, whose campus is just 20 miles from the city.

"I've never had police escorts to a game, media attention," senior guard Lamar Butler said. "It's been hectic all week. We're living in the moment right now."

While some opinions differ on what exactly constitutes a mid-major program, probably the last true mid-major to reach the NCAA Final Four was Indiana State in 1979.

"The difference between major and mid-major schools is definitely shrinking," Butler said. "[It's] not just us. You look at Bradley, Wichita State ... those teams made a deep run into the tournament just like us, so it shows the gap is definitely shrinking."

The last No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four was LSU, which beat Kentucky to advance in 1986.

"Not too many 11 seeds have made it this far," said Jai Lewis, George Mason's leading scorer with 13.5 points a game. "We're just trying to reach another plateau, go to the next step. We have to get past UConn."

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said the cliche that "anybody can beat anybody" is not true if "there's a huge discrepancy in talent," and there are a lot of intangibles like crowd participation in favor of the higher seed.

There are weaknesses he said he can exploit, though, and that equals "the upset formula." Larranaga pointed out that Michigan State was stronger and more physical than his team, but the Patriots won with their speed.

"In this game, obviously Connecticut has so much talent at so many different positions on the floor, we're going to have to really analyze what we're going to do [today] so that our players know, this is our focus, this is our strength against this particular team, this is their strength against us," he said. "We've got to take that away.

"If we can, we put ourselves in a position to win," he said. "If we can't, then we're not going to upset them."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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