Mason needs title to be top 'dog

As 11th seed, Patriots have made history, but a lasting legacy still lies two wins away

NCAA Men

Ncaa Tournament

March 28, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

Hoosiers.

Super Bowl III.

The Miracle on Ice.

Two more wins, and George Mason would become to college basketball what a basketball team from a small town in 1954 Indiana means to high school sports, what Joe Namath's Jets are to pro football and what the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team is to the Winter Olympics.

The Patriots and their five starters from Maryland already hold a rare place in the history of the NCAA tournament, but underdogs with the most lasting legacies finished the deal.

In four days, George Mason can take the next step toward what would have to be the most improbable national champion major college athletics has ever produced. No team has ever gotten to the Final Four with a lower seed than the Patriots. In at least one regard, however, 11th-seeded George Mason isn't the most unlikely participant in the game's showcase.

Tony Price was as shocked as any ticket holder at Verizon Center on Sunday, when the Patriots completed their run through the Washington Regional with an overtime victory over top-seeded Connecticut. Legal problems forced his son, A.J. Price, to sit out this season for the Huskies. In his day, Tony Price was an Ivy League Player of the Year who took Penn to the 1979 Final Four.

"I was obviously rooting for UConn, and couldn't get caught up in the underdog thing," Price said. "A day later, of course, I've thought about what we [the Quakers] did."

As an 11th seed in a 65-team bracket, George Mason was more highly regarded than 32.3 percent of the teams in the tournament. As a ninth seed in a 40-team field, Penn was in the bottom 20 percent.

A doubleheader at N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum became known as Black Sunday on Tobacco Road. St. John's, the 10th seed in the East Regional, beat second-seeded Duke. Penn knocked off top-seeded North Carolina. The Quakers then beat Syracuse and St. John's to get to the Final Four in Salt Lake City, where they were crushed by Michigan State and Magic Johnson, 101-67.

"We kept winning, and saying we were going to ride the NCAA wave until we fell off the board," Price said. "They [the Patriots] may be going to a better party. I picked a tough one to crash."

Six years later, another Philadelphia team produced the lowest-seeded champion ever.

The 1985 tournament was the first with a 64-team bracket. The Big East Conference took advantage of expanded at-large opportunities to become the only league ever to place three teams in the Final Four. St. John's was the regular-season champ in the Big East. Georgetown beat St. John's in the conference tournament and NCAA semis, and figured to repeat as national champion.

Eighth-seeded Villanova, however, played a near-perfect game at the offensive end and beat the Hoyas, 66-64. George Mason made six of its seven three-pointers in the second half against Connecticut, and five of its six field-goal attempts in overtime. In the 1985 final, Villanova shot 78.6 percent (22 of 28) from the field.

Ed Pinckney, who outscored and out-rebounded Patrick Ewing, couldn't be reached to comment yesterday, but he probably wasn't in a mood to talk. He's an assistant on the top-seeded Wildcats team that was eliminated by Florida on Sunday.

N.C. State in 1983 and Kansas in 1988 won as sixth seeds, but both had won NCAA titles before.

In 1986, LSU became the only double-digit seed to get to the Final Four before George Mason. Another 11th seed, the Tigers upset Purdue in double overtime, Memphis, Georgia Tech and Kentucky to win its regional. Kentucky had lost once in Southeastern Conference play, where LSU went .500. At the Final Four in Dallas, the Tigers lost to eventual champion Louisville.

In that 1986 tournament, Cleveland State become the first 14th seed to get to the Sweet 16, where it lost to David Robinson and Navy. The Midshipmen were in the Colonial Athletic Association then, the only season the CAA received an at-large bid before this one.

Craig Littlepage, the chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee, which took heat for some of its at-large selections, passed on the opportunity to gloat Sunday. In Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut, George Mason dispatched programs that had won four of the past seven NCAA titles.

"This isn't about the committee, but what that team has done," Littlepage said. "It's good for college basketball; we're better as a community because of stories like this."

George Mason didn't play Division I basketball until 1978, and was part of an expansion in which that level has boomed to more than 330 members.

During the first four decades of the NCAA tournament, conference also-rans couldn't become Cinderella stories. In 1975, the tournament began a decade-long expansion from 25 teams to 64. It was a season too late for a fine Maryland team, whose 1974 season ended with a loss to N.C. State in the ACC tournament final.

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