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Setting the Stage for the 2006 Final Four

by Kyle Winchester | March 31st, 2006

It is finally here. The grandest stage, the big time. Two weeks worth of predictions, brackets, frustration, & exuberance. We are down to the last four teams of the NCAA Tournament and only one question remains:Who the heck is George Mason?

Ole Georgie was a patriot who was close friends with George Washington. But he is also apparently the namesake of a university in Fairfax, VA, that apparently plays college basketball and plays it rather well.

For the next four days, Cinderella will get so much airplay that the Walt Disney surely has to be making money off copyright usage. We will hear so much about the Patriots from the Colonial Athletic Association and how they represent the equality mid-major schools are seeking. They have justified their entrance into the NCAA Tournament and validated the selection committee. Every analogy possible will be thrown out there by the media: David topples Goliath, the little engine that could, the team that shocked the world, and the list goes on.

Are you maybe just a little bit tired of it yet?

First of all, George Mason has been disrespected as much as they have played it up. From the beginning, they belonged in the NCAA Tournament. End of discussion. This was not a case of “who is better: GMU or Hofstra?” The discussion was and should still be, “did the Committee get the 34 best at-large teams in the tournament?” The answer was, and still is, no. But George Mason was not a team that should have been left out. They split the CAA regular season title, played a tougher schedule than Hofstra, and were frankly a better team. If anything, they should have been a higher seed than the 11 they were given. More than likely, the suspension of Tony Skinn for his crotch-shot in the CAA semis cost the Patriots the 9 or 10-seed they deserved. The only question posed against George Mason being included in the tournament was “GMU over Hofstra?” The appropriate response is that the committee compares the entire landscape of candidates, not head-to-head for just two teams.

Second, George Mason should not have been favored in three of the four games they won in the NCAA Tournament. They had a decent shot against Michigan St and were clearly better than Wichita St. However, both North Carolina and Connecticut had a right to be favored and confident entering their contests with the Patriots. All this smoke that Mason coach Jim Larranaga has blown about being disrespected is just that: smoke. What does he expect? It is all opinion and of course people will side with the favored teams. That is why they play the game and the better team on that day wins. So far, George Mason has been the better team. Credit to Coach Larranaga for using the doubt to motivate his players and credit his players for turning the motivation into production on the court. He is a master motivator and is proving to be one heck of a college coach as well.

Third, the Tony Skinn story has been portrayed as far too positive. Verne Lundquist is one of the best play-by-play guys in broadcasting, but if he mentioned how great a story Tony Skinn was one more time, I was going to find a high ledge. Someone please tell me how a guy who has attended three schools because of academic issues is a great story. How is someone who acts like a thug a great story? How is a guy who punches an opposing player in the <ahem> groin area a great story? Fine, I’ll tell you why he is a great story: he persevered. He has not given up and people have not given up on him and that’s great. But do not praise a guy for his mistakes; praise him for learning from them and growing. You just have to wonder if he was not a quality basketball player if he would be considered a great story (and I wonder this is every case, not just Tony Skinn’s). The circumstances that created this “great story” could have been avoided, which the media has now chosen to ignore. Two weeks ago, Skinn was the bad guy for potentially costing his team a berth in the field; now, he’s praised. It just does not make sense.

Fourth, why is everyone freaking out about George Mason making the Final Four? It is not like we haven’t seen this before. There have been plenty of teams from non-Division I football schools and conferences to make the Final Four over time. Marquette, DePaul, Penn, Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, etc. But, George Mason is a case of a number of factors adding up. They play in a conference the casual fan may not realize exists. They are a relatively new program, moving up to D-I status for the 1978-1979 season. They were an 11-seed in the tournament and made this run at the expense of three of the most prominent college basketball programs in America. The sum is a great story for CBS and the media to cover for the next week. All in all, be ready for a heavy dose of George Mason this week.

The biggest benefactors of George Mason’s Final Four run are the other three teams involved. What, there are still three other teams? That’s funny no one has said anything about them. I challenge you to ask five people today to name the Final Four and see how many of them know about GMU but cannot name the other three teams. One might think the advantage for Florida, LSU, and UCLA lies on the court, as George Mason is not UCONN, Duke, Texas, or Villanova.

But that is not the case. Mason is still playing because they deserve to be playing. They’ve won the required number of games and beaten four very good teams. The advantage is that the Patriots, the mid-majors, the CAA, and Coach Larranaga will be the talk of the town all week long. Otherwise, coaches John Brady and Ben Howland’s first Final Four appearances would be the talk. Billy Donovan’s failures in March. The draft status of Joakim Noah, Al Hortford, Tyrus Thomas, Tasmin Mitchell, Jordan Farmar, Big Baby Davis, and Aaron Afflalo. The return of UCLA. Instead, theses three programs can sit back and watch all the spotlight (if they want to) shine on George Mason.

Truthfully, Florida is the favorite. When all four of these teams have played their best, Florida has looked to be the best of them. During the second half of the Florida/Kentucky game in Gainesville on ESPN’s Saturday night game back in January, it looked like the Gators could win the whole thing this year. Of course they played terrible for two weeks after that and looked suddenly young. To Coach Donovan’s credit, he rallied the troops and the Gators rebounded to finish out the season with huge victories at Kentucky and in the SEC Tournament.

LSU is so young, but so talented. John Brady has done a fantastic job this season, proving many of his critics wrong. Obviously recruiting the state of Louisiana has been his bread and butter, as nearly all the quality players on his team are in-state recruits. Tyrus Thomas is a kid that everyone else missed on, and LSU nearly did. He received a scholarship only after another recruit had academic problems and lost his roster spot. Thomas redshirted last season and is now projected as an NBA lottery pick. Amazing.

Finally, UCLA is rekindling its John Wooden mojo. Ben Howland’s job out there has been phenomenal. Credit him for selling these young guys on returning UCLA to glory and keeping a lot of LA guys at home for college. Also, credit these players for taking the chance by staying and buying into what Coach Howland preaches. This team has flown under the radar this season due to injury problems, but plays with grit and determination, a noticeable difference from most recent UCLA teams.

Though this is certainly not the Final Four we envisioned, it could still prove to be quality. A week’s worth of hype and pressure will be played out starting Saturday afternoon, bringing to close what has been a fantastic season of NCAA hoops.

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