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Archive for Monday, March 27, 2006

Commentary: Mason, Larranaga win 1 - or 4 - for little guy

March 27, 2006

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This time of year used to be reserved for the big guys, with their tournament pedigrees, supersized budgets and ever-lengthening roster of NBA alums.

But if such a memo ever reached his desk, you can bet George Mason coach Jim Larranaga crumpled it into a ball and then, like just about every one of his Patriots in the second half of Sunday's game against mighty Connecticut, threw it into the nearest basket. He learned long ago you can accomplish a lot by ignoring conventional wisdom.

No school from the Colonial Athletic Assn. ever had stuck a toe across the Final Four's threshold. And no schools outside the power conferences ruled by the likes of Duke and UConn had done it since 1979.

But from Larranaga's perspective, that history wasn't daunting. It was simply fresh material.

After the Patriots slipped past Michigan State, but before they played defending champion North Carolina, he turned the Tar Heels' tradition and trappings - all the way down to their regal sky-blue uniforms - into a rallying cry. The green jerseys his kids donned in the locker room might not have looked like much when laid out alongside Carolina's; but just before they headed for the floor, he asked, "What color is kryptonite?"

Against Connecticut, Larranaga went back to the same theme, making sure his kids knew they weren't just playing the best team in the country from the best and biggest basketball league, the Big East. With two national titles in the last seven years - and four, and maybe more, NBA first-rounders in its lineup - he doubted the Huskies had even bothered to find out which conference George Mason played in.

"Coach told us," guard Tony Skinn revealed afterward, "the CAA stands for 'Connecticut Assassin Association."'

And after the Patriots finished the deed, 86-84 in overtime, Larranaga turned up on CBS for a postgame interview surrounded by his smiling accomplices.

"I told our players, I don't know how many times," the coach recalled, "that we represent a lot more than a basketball team."

The NCAA Tournament committee made a symbol of George Mason on Selection Sunday two weeks ago, though the members who did so couldn't have know that when they touched off a lingering controversy by awarding bracket slots to a handful of mid-major programs at the expense of sixth- and seventh-place teams from the power leagues. All they could do was hope.

It's been noted before that what separates the mid-majors from college basketball's elite are tradition and cash. Emphasis on the cash.

Those two qualities in tandem are what makes recruiting McDonald's All-Americans season after season a reality, and that parade of talent, in turn, is what makes the final rungs of the tournament the province of the big guys. By the time the field is cut to eight, all those intangibles the little guys have in abundance - hustle, heart and cohesion - usually add up to good memories and not much more.

Plenty has changed since Penn and Indiana State (led by a pretty fair player named Larry Bird) became the last little guys to crash the Final Four party in 1979. The best high school players still choose UConn, Duke and North Carolina - they just don't stay as long. And plenty of the kids who used to sit behind them, waiting for their chance, have trickled down into the mid-major ranks in search of a chance to play right away.

The win will do wonders for George Mason, and it will give the NCAA Tournament committee plenty of ammunition the next time it reaches down into the mid-major ranks to fill out its brackets. But the chance of another little guy coming along and toppling Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn in succession might take another perfect storm.

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