The Final Four Finally: The Phenom of George Mason
I’ve been hearing that question a lot lately, mostly from friends and family who’ve phoned from various spots around the country. Up until now, they weren’t exactly sure where I’d attended graduate school. George Washington? James Madison? James Mason? The only thing they knew for sure is that it was somewhere near Washington D.C.
My late father called me years ago during a Monday Night Football game and, with some excitement, informed me that All-Pro defensive end Charles Haley had gone to the same school as me. I had to tell him no, that I hadn’t gone to Haley’s alma mater, which was James Madison. In fact, George Mason didn’t even have a football team.
There was a pause, and then he said, “What’s the name of that school again?”
I think he may have felt sorry for me.
Things can change fast. Our culture is littered with overnight sensations, most forgotten in a couple of weeks. But the George fuckin’ Mason basketball team? I didn’t see this one coming.
In case you’ve managed to avoid all news regarding the current NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the George Mason Patriots are America’s underdog of the moment, the unknown school from the mid-major Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) who beat half of last year’s Final Four (Michigan State and North Carolina) and this year’s top-ranked team (UConn) en route to Saturday’s Final Four match up against Florida in Indianapolis.
As for those of us who either graduated from or still attend the school, it’s like somebody put a boot to the baseboard and released an army of cockroaches. We’re damn near delirious and don’t know what to do with ourselves. And nobody had a clue that there were this many of us hidden in the walls.
“One thing that’s struck me over the past couple of weeks,” says Scott W. Berg, a journalist, Mason graduate school alumni, and current professor of English at the school, “is how big Mason Nation really is, how everyone in northern Virginia either went to Mason or is related to someone who went there. They’ve just never had a reason to raise their hands all at once.”
In terms of size, it’s hard to think of George Mason as an underdog. With more than twenty-nine thousand students, it’s actually the largest state-run university in Virginia. Its enrollment numbers are also slightly larger than the University of Connecticut’s (28,083 as of Fall ’05). The hoops disparity between Mason and a school like UConn comes down to the amount of money spent on the men’s basketball programs.
According to ESPN.com, UConn’s annual operating budget for men’s basketball is $5.52 million, while George Mason’s is $1.02 million. That means UConn has the resources to court and lure a posse of McDonalds high school All-Americans, while Mason is left to recruit players who were judged not quite good enough for major programs, as well as local stars who would probably see a lot of bench time at powerhouse schools. George Mason’s selling point to these players is that they might not get a lot of SportsCenter coverage at Mason, but at least they can stay close to home and be in the starting lineup.
Many of the Patriots’ best players were recruited from parts of Maryland that are less than an hour’s drive from the Fairfax, Virginia campus. Guards Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn grew up in Ft. Washington and Takoma Park, Maryland respectively, while swingman Folarin Campbell hails from Silver Spring, Md., and beefy forward/center Jai Lewis, who has pondered an NFL career as a tight end, was recruited out of Aberdeen, Md.
Mason’s situation is similar to that of many schools in other non-BCS conferences such as the Missouri Valley Conference, the Patriot League, and the Mid-America Conference. There may be an imbalance in resources, but the mid-major schools have found ways to be competitive against teams from the ACC, Big East, SEC, and other power conferences.
The NCAA’s reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 in 1994 helped spread talent across the board in college hoops. Also, the best college players are now staying in school an ever shorter amount of time before turning pro, which means the most talent-laden programs often witness a quick turnover in personnel, leaving less time to gel as a true team. Meanwhile, less highly-recruited players at a school like George Mason are more likely to expend all four years of eligibility and gain a level of playing experience that a young team, such as this year’s North Carolina Tar Heels, might lack.
As a fan, I always find myself hoping for good results from the mid-majors come tournament time. It’s not just the underdog story, but the brand of basketball that they play. With more experience, the players have had time to find their roles and learn how to fill them. And so they generally play an entertaining brand of team basketball. Until Mason’s run, it appeared that Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., might have the best chance of any mid-level program to break through and make the Final Four, even though Gonzaga has gained enough success over the past few years to almost be considered something above a mid-level program.
But I’ve yet to meet anyone who predicted with any sincerity that George Mason would bust down on Michigan State, UNC, Wichita State, and UConn while playing the best team basketball in the tournament.
It’s well known that CBS broadcasters Billy Packer and Jim Nantz excoriated the tournament selection committee for including too many mid-major teams in the field. They were especially appalled at Mason’s inclusion. If these two jackass power-conference sycophants had been making the decisions, basketball fans would have been deprived of not just a great underdog storyline but also a chance to watch a very entertaining team. The Patriots play excellent defense, both inside and on the perimeter, even when outsized by their opponent. They also spread the floor and show patience on offense. They’ve got two big guys (Thomas and Lewis) who can post up and consistently drain hook shots in the paint (Thomas with his left hand and Lewis with his right). If they’re double-teamed, they kick it outside where the guards can shoot the three and penetrate. In fact, Lamar Butler and swingman Folarin Campbell appear to have NBA potential.
The Patriots’ coach, Jim Larranaga, is the antithesis of every sweat-soaked, hypertensive, dictator in college hoops who acts as if a basketball game is the most important thing in the world and the media is an enemy and not the avenue by which he communicates with the public. Also, Larranaga doesn’t coach scared. He’ll tell his team to play a zone defense against the defending national champions, even if they only recently installed the zone at practice. He plays baseball with the players after practice, using a goofy foam bat and a ball made of trainers tape. He whistles. He hums the Mission Impossible theme song. He tells the team before the biggest game in school history that CAA doesn’t stand for Colonial Athletic Association, but for “Connecticut Assassins Association.”
Granted, it’s easy to stay loose when expectations are low, but there’s no need to begrudge Mason’s players and coaches for it. The lack of pressure is simply an element that helps level things out between the mid-majors and schools like UConn and North Carolina during the tournament. Thankfully, the selection committee gave fans a chance to enjoy it.
If you like sports and wind up attending a school with no real sports tradition (I doubled down there, hitting Georgia State University for my undergraduate studies), it’s inevitable that you spend some time wondering what might have been. What if you’d gone to Kentucky? You could be sitting three rows from Ashley Judd at Rupp Arena. Or Miami? The U! Just by sheer association of going to the same school as Ray Lewis and Sean Taylor, nobody would ever start any shit with you anywhere for any reason at any time.
So, now I’ve got my chance to be a big-time college sports fan. The problem is that I’m not worthy of basking in any of this, and I know it. I didn’t attend a single Mason basketball game this season, and I only casually followed the team in the local organ, The Washington Post, which wasn’t easy because the Post covers University of Maryland basketball ad nauseum and devotes very little space to Mason. Even more shameful, I went out for Mexican food and DVR’d the first-round game against Michigan State, watching it a couple hours after it was over. I even fast-forwarded through the first half.
That said, the last two weeks have included more sports-viewing joy than the last ten years put together. I won’t allow myself to gloat, or talk trash or act like I’ve been a fan all along. I think I may have just called Billy Packer a jackass, but I can’t control all my impulses.
What I have done is re-watch that Michigan State game in its entirety. I also put a little something on Mason in subsequent games via an off-shore Internet gaming site. I plunked down scalpers’ prices for a pair of nosebleeds to the sweet 16 matchup against Wichita State. Hell, I even bought a Washington regional t-shirt at the game and asked my wife to X-out the logos of the other three teams with a Sharpie. I wear the shirt at home, but I don’t feel like I’m a worthy enough fan to wear it in public.
One man who can actually say he’s been in the Patriots’ corner all season is Dan Aldis, a Mason alum who lives in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
“I caught four games in person this year,” he says. “They were really starting to shape up as a good team toward the end of the season, but when they lost in the CAA tournament you could have easily made an argument against them making the NCAA tournament.”
Aldis was an undergraduate at basketball powerhouse Kentucky from 1995-98, meaning he was there when the Wildcats won national championships in 1996 and 1998. He later transferred and finished his studies at Mason’s school of management. With two Kentucky titles under his belt, he’s hoping to get the hat trick with Mason this year.
Asked to compare the basketball experiences at a stalwart school like Kentucky and an out-of-the-blue contender such as Mason, Aldis says, “They’re both cool. Kentucky started the fire for me as a basketball fan, and to watch Mason make such a shocking run has been amazing.”
There’s no doubt we’re in a honeymoon phase. Nothing that happens in Indianapolis can spoil it. But then something comes next. Maybe the basketball program grows and expectations rise. Other schools try to hire Larranaga away from Mason. What then?
I asked Duke grad Jamil Albertelli what to expect if Mason continues its success on the hardwood after this season. Will Mason fans start to sound like Duke fans, moaning that every foul called against the Patriots is unfair? Will anything less than a Final Four appearance feel like a complete failure?
“The more success you have, the more you’re going to care and the more biased you’re going to become,” Albertelli says. “The more I want to win, the more I think the refs are handing the game to the other team. And even if Duke has had a great season, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when they lose in the NCAA tournament.”
Albertelli’s advice for Mason fans is to savor their role as the underdog because it won’t last forever. You may become a contender, or you may go back to relative anonymity, but it will never be the same as it was this season.
“My freshman year at Duke was ’91,” Albertelli says, “the year we beat UNLV in the finals. That’s the last time we were underdogs. It was fun being David. It’s nice not to have expectations.”
The memory of ’91 makes Albertelli go quiet for a moment. But then, before we say goodbye, he asks if I would do him a favor.
“Sure,” I say. “What is it?”
“Would you remind Maryland fans that George Mason now has only one less Final Four appearance than they have.”
It didn’t take Albertelli long to slip back into his role as a Duke fan and antagonist to other ACC fans.
But what’s the role of a George Mason student or graduate right now? As Mason’s Berg reminds me, there are expectations from America at large. We’re supposed to be wide-eyed, innocent, and giddy, as if we’d just lost our cherry. We’re supposed to act as if we just became a real man or woman.
“We’ve got helicopters flying over the campus and all sorts of media lined up outside the Patriot Center (the basketball team’s home court),” says Berg. “They’ll interview twenty students until they find one who says what they want to hear: ‘Now I feel like I go to a real university!’ We were already a real university, but that doesn’t fit the narrative. Our job right now is just to relax and play the role we’ve been assigned. It’s much bigger than us.”
All right, let me see if I’ve got the hang of it:
Holy fucking shit! We’re a real fucking school!
Photos of George Mason Patriots fans featured in this article are by Techne at http://www.flickr.com/photos/techne/sets/72057594091715807/