Without refreshing Patriots, finalists stage same tired act

April 03, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis-- --The next morning, America had a George Mason hangover.

The college basketball world was back to normal yesterday, and that's not a compliment. It's not the fault of the two teams playing tonight for the national championship, but it will be hard to embrace them as much as the team that flew back to Fairfax, Va., yesterday.

Yesterday, no fewer than two players for Florida - Southeastern Conference tournament champions, the third seed in its regional, near-unanimously recognized as the Final Four's most talented team and favored to beat UCLA for the title - said, out loud, that they weren't getting enough respect.

"It's the same as it's been all year. Nobody's ever really given us a chance to win the national championship," Corey Brewer said.

You didn't miss that tired, phony ploy the past three weeks, did you? Not with a real, honest-to-goodness underdog around, a team that nobody even knew enough about to disrespect.

At courtside early in George Mason's semifinal Saturday, someone had asked if anyone "had seen them play a lot." Before last weekend, the reply came, when everyone else in America started watching them? No.

George Mason became a national phenomenon, among other reasons, because the Patriots were different. They weren't jaded by excessive attention. They hadn't learned the cliches, hadn't been told that interviews and public appearances were a burden, hadn't grown weary of reciting the same stories churned out in so many other places for too long a time.

Nobody was asked more versions of the same questions than coach Jim Larranaga, yet he kept answering, always with the same blend of excitement, perspective and sincerity. After the loss to Florida on Saturday, he one-upped himself and acknowledged that even he, during his long career, hadn't imagined that something like this could happen, at a mid-major school with overlooked players.

"They've probably opened up the eyes of many people, including myself, that you don't have to have 7-footers on your team, or be the biggest and strongest team, to have a great basketball team," Larranaga said.

If only such a spirit could have stayed in town when he and his team left.

Even the most engaging player remaining, Florida's Joakim Noah, couldn't avoid referring yesterday to the "distractions" of the day off. "This is what I have to do," he said, "talking to the media."

Poor, tortured soul. There's a dozen or so players in green and gold who would give up their meal money to be in your place. The day before the semifinal and after the game, reporters had to be pulled away from them. They were basking in the sudden, unexpected limelight, and they didn't want to stop telling everyone how great it was to be living this.

Then again, they've had neither an entire region's media (as with UCLA) or an entire state's (as with Florida) chronicling their every move since the day they'd arrived on campus.

If the Patriots were new and refreshing for us, we were even more new and refreshing for them.

Compare the handling of the nameplates. Yesterday, the Florida and UCLA players dutifully and glumly lugged theirs from the large interview stage to the individual interview rooms. Two days earlier, George Mason's Lamar Butler had asked moderators if he could keep his.

On Saturday night, after the game and the dream season had ended, Butler returned to the locker room from one last interview, still clutching his nameplate.

"I'm definitely going to keep every pen they gave us," teammate Jai Lewis said a few minutes later inside the crowded locker room. "Shirts, stuff like that, so I can show them off. I'm definitely going to frame my jersey with the Final Four patch on it.

"I just had a lot of fun going down this road," he added.

The fresh air George Mason had pumped into the sport, that fans around the country had inhaled so deeply, had been sucked out by yesterday afternoon. It was the same old, same old. Did you know UCLA has already won 11 championships? That Billy Donovan had led Florida to the final once before in the same building?

No more talk of Kryptonite, no more tales of being snubbed and spurned, no more debates about leveling the field, no more tirades against Billy Packer.

Just two elite, history-laden programs from power conferences. Two coaches (Donovan and Ben Howland) who rode the fast track to the top. Two rosters full of blue-chip recruits, including a trio of Gators whose fathers were famous athletes.

That all had been more than enough to hold our attention in past years. But then America got drunk on George Mason, and do we ever have a headache now.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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

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