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March 28, 2006

SCS.comWhere did they come from? What are they doing here?

No, this isn't the introduction to the newest alien movie.

We are talking about the biggest longshot in Final Four history. We are talking about the George Mason Patriots.

As soon as the buzzer sounded in overtime of their Elite Eight game against Connecticut, the entire country paused to make sense of what happened. A #11 seed that came into the NCAA Tournament as a questionable at-large selection from the Colonial Athletic Association just upset a team that has more talent than some NBA teams? And then it hit everyone; we all just witnessed history.

Some people call George Mason's victory over Connecticut one of the greatest upsets in the history of college basketball. David knocked down Goliath. Cinderella fit the slipper for one more game. But was it really that much of an upset? Or was it just one Final Four-quality team beating another? Take it from Connecticut's Rashad Anderson: "It wasn't no upset. They're a great basketball team."

Both UConn and GMU shot about 50% from the field, and there wasn't a huge disparity in free throws. None of UConn's stars fell completely off the map. Yes, George Mason was playing 20 minutes from their campus, but that shouldn't take away from the magnitude of their win. If one looks at the other top upsets - Chaminade beating Virginia, NC State beating Houston, Villanova beating Georgetown they would notice something. Something that was different than the Huskies-Patriots game.

The Chaminade win took place in their home gym, where goofy things happen all the time. In the Houston game, Clyde Drexler was held 12 points below his season average because of foul trouble. Moreover, the Cougars shot terribly throughout the game. And we all know that Villanova needed to play the perfect game to beat Georgetown.

George Mason did not rely on any of that. Connecticut seemed like the team trying to catch up for the entire latter part of the game. Once the Patriots took the lead, they controlled it for the rest of the contest. They hit the shots when it mattered and Connecticut didn't. That's the bottom line: they were better than the Huskies. George Mason's run to the Final Four, capped by their victory over #1 Connecticut, has indeed been historic.

It wasn't just the win over Connecticut. It wasn't just the fact that they are only the second #11 seed to ever reach the Final Four. It was how they did it. The Patriots beat annual powerhouses Michigan State and North Carolina, as well as Wichita State, to get to the regional final. They overcame the suspension of Tony Skinn for the first game of the NCAA Tournament. For a team that only uses six players, that was a significant loss.

Without Skinn, they were supposed to lose to the Spartans. They were not good enough in the frontcourt to beat the Tar Heels. It was too hard to beat an equal team like Wichita State twice in a row. They were too small, not athletic enough, and not deep enough to beat Connecticut. So much for so-called "expert" opinions.

George Mason is still alive and kicking in the Final Four and can't be overlooked any longer. If the Patriots can beat the types of teams they have already, they have a legit shot at winning the National Championship. No matter what happens, though, they will forever be a part of college basketball history.

No matter when it ends, it's been a long road to get here. Let's have a look at just exactly who these guys are.

The Program

A small- to medium-sized commuter school in Fairfax, Virginia, George Mason is not known for their basketball. However, with its proximity to Washington, D.C. and its pipeline to Maryland, the Patriots are not without talent in their hoops program. Though they've had regular season success in the past few years, it has not translated to postseason victories. Coming into this season, George Mason had not won an NCAA Tournament game. They now have four, including wins over some of the best programs in history. The Patriots had made three NCAA Tournament appearances and three NIT appearances prior to this year's spot in the Big Dance.

This season's Final Four run could change the program forever, though. More national recognition and the fact that Jim Larranaga's system looks fun to play in will entice higher-ranked recruits to Fairfax. Could this be the new Gonzaga? Only time will tell.

The Coach

Famous for his classic whistle and his "scramble" style of play, Jim Larranaga started his coaching career as an assistant coach to Terry Holland at Davidson College in South Carolina. He then became a player/coach for a Belgium club team for a season before returning to the coaching ranks as the head man at American International for two seasons. After that, he returned to being an assistant coach under Terry Holland, this time at Virginia.

Here's a coincidence for you: remember that Chaminade upset I mentioned earlier? Larranaga was an assistant for UVA during that game. Oh, the irony.

After seven seasons with the Cavaliers, he moved back into a head coaching position at Bowling Green. During his eleven-year tenure there, he was the MAC Coach of the Year and led the Falcons to an NIT berth. Joining the George Mason program prior to the 1997-1998 season, Larranaga was not overly impressive in his first season, leading the Patriots to a paltry 9-18 record.

However, the year after, Larranaga announced his arrival. George Mason won their first-ever regular season title and their second conference tournament title in 1999, while Larranaga took home CAA Coach of the Year honors. Since then, the Patriots have not won less than 16 games in a single year. That streak includes a school-record 23 wins two seasons ago.

Wherever he goes, Jim Larranaga has been a winner. And he just might end up winning a national championship.

The Players

George Mason came into the NCAA Tournament not playing their best basketball of the season, but they have obviously looked extremely impressive thus far in the Big Dance. The Patriots have a balanced offense with five guys in double-figures, and they are efficient from the field. Additionally, they play very good defense and have the ability to knock off quality teams, as shown over the past two weeks. The backcourt of Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler is athletic and capable of matching up with some of the best guards out there. Butler is a good all-around player, while Skinn is a solid shooter and scorer. Folarin Campbell can do a variety of things well, and he has stepped his game up tremendously in the NCAA Tournament.

Up front, Will Thomas and Jai Lewis form one of the more underrated inside duos in the country. Both can get a double-double every night out, and they are physical and difficult to stop with their backs to the basket. The one downfall for the Patriots is their lack of depth. Only guard/forward Gabe Norwood sees extensive minutes off the bench.

The Season

The Patriots came into the season projected to finish third in the conference by the CAA coaches, behind Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth, and their non-conference performance seemed to mirror that projection. They had a few solid wins along the way, including a road win at Manhattan and a home victory over Holy Cross. Moreover, the Patriots did not have any losses to inferior clubs, although there was a 20-point defeat at the hands of Creighton. Close losses to Wake Forest and Mississippi State would give them confidence for the conference season.

Once the CAA portion of the season began, the Patriots again looked like they would be a contender for the league title, but obviously no one was thinking Final Four. They had a one-point defeat to Old Dominion, but swept Northeastern and knocked off VCU at home. Another close loss, this time to UNC-Wilmington, started to give people the feeling that George Mason would struggle on the road against quality teams. But that's just when the Patriots really hit their stride.

An eight-game winning streak capped by a road win over Wichita State in the Bracket Busters competition gave George Mason a legitimate shot at an at-large bid. Included in that streak was a win over UNC-Wilmington and a blowout of Old Dominion.

George Mason did not close the season very strong, though. They lost two of their final four games, including two contests against Hofstra, which put them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into Selection Sunday. And we all know what has happened since then.

The Patriots earned their berth and have made the most of it thus far. How long will the story last? Tune in this weekend to see the next page in the story of the 2006 George Mason Patriots. Will it be the final page? Only time will tell.

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