Big plans in Indy for little G. Mason

Underdogs not scared of spotlight, taller Fla.

April 01, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

INDIANAPOLIS -- As his coach was addressing a room full of media yesterday at RCA Dome, George Mason senior guard Lamar Butler playfully poked his head between two curtains to see what was going on, a wide smile spread across his face.

"I was looking at how big the room was, how many media people were here," he said. "I've never seen this many people here just to ask questions and write a story."

At the Final Four - an event the unheralded George Mason program had never come close to until earning its first NCAA tournament victory last month - the Patriots are the story, and it's one that hasn't been told in decades.

George Mason (27-7) made a quantum leap from its 10,000-seat arena in Fairfax, Va., to college basketball's grandest stage and will face No. 3 seed Florida (31-6) at 6:07 tonight in the national semifinals.

With its win over No. 1 seed Connecticut last weekend, George Mason became the first No. 11 seed to make the Final Four since LSU in 1986, and the first team from outside a major conference since Penn and Indiana State in 1979.

The Patriots have made school history with each NCAA win, yet yesterday, coach Jim Larranaga was still fielding questions such as, "Who are the George Mason Patriots?"

"Nobody knows us," Larranaga said. "We've been flying under the radar screen. ... We're a bunch of no-name guys playing in the biggest sporting event in the world and loving it."

With everything his team has accomplished - including upsets of Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State - winning the national title is no longer an absurd notion. Still, Florida is 18-0 against nonconference teams this season and making its third Final Four appearance. The Gators will present a mismatch similar to that of the taller Huskies.

George Mason was able to beat Connecticut in overtime with strong perimeter shooting that opened up opportunities inside. Florida, though, has 6-foot-11 forward Joakim Noah, who is averaging 17.3 points and 10 rebounds in the tournament.

"To me, size doesn't really mean anything," said Noah, who has blocked 19 shots in four games. Nobody in Mason's starting lineup is listed over 6-7, and some say that's a stretch for senior forward Jai Lewis.

"I think we're a little bigger down on the post," the 275-pound Lewis said. "They might be taller, but the weight difference definitely is more of an advantage to George Mason than it is Florida right now."

"We're all undersized, from the point guard to the center," said sophomore forward Will Thomas, a Mount St. Joseph graduate who has had three double doubles in the past four games. "That's how we match up. That's how we've matched up every game in the tournament."

So what does George Mason have that Florida doesn't?

"They're a more athletic team than we are, but mentally we're tougher than them," senior guard Tony Skinn said. "Every single person has a bigger heart than anybody on that floor. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here. The odds are against us, and we're still here."

Statistically, Florida scores more points, has a better shooting percentage and averages 5.2 blocks. Thomas said George Mason counters with quickness, but floundered to come up with something else.

"We play our hearts out," he said. "That's what we've been doing all season."

They've also played fundamentally sound basketball. In the Patriots' four tournament games, they have held their opponents to 39.4 percent shooting. Florida has held its opponents to 26.5 percent from the field over its nine-game winning streak. George Mason has out-rebounded all four of its opponents, including Connecticut.

"It's a great story," Gators forward Corey Brewer said. "But we really don't think about it like that. It's us against them."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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