March 31, 2006

Patriots' Cinderella Story Looks for Fairy-Tale Ending

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As always, I’m here to be the voice of the little guys. While I can’t lie and say that I had George Mason going anywhere in my brackets, the team from Fairfax, Va., has won me, and most of America, over with its Goliath-slaying abilities.

Sure, I realize that picking the 11th seeded Patriots to win the Final Four is like saying Terrell Owens won’t cause problems in Dallas. But hey, they weren’t supposed to win at all in the tournament. Actually, they weren’t even supposed to be in the tournament. And if I learned anything about basketball while watching this year’s tournament, it’s that nothing is guaranteed to any team or anybody.

Though George Mason lost just three games in Colonial Athletic Association play this season, the Patriots were upended by Hofstra in the semifinals of the conference tournament – their second loss to the Pride in as many games this season. Therefore, when George Mason was given an at-large bid on Selection Sunday, many Long Islanders (including myself) were scratching their heads wondering why Hofstra, who lost to UNC-Wilmington in the CAA finals, was going to be relegated to the NIT.

Well, just as Billy Packer had to eat his words about the abundance of mid-majors in this year’s tournament, so too did I about the Patriots. Yet, even Miss Cleo would be lying if she told you that she could have predicted the team’s recent run after such a rollercoaster ride.

In the second Hofstra game, Patriot guard Tony Skinn punched the Pride’s Loren Stokes in the groin with under a minute to play, which prompted George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga to suspend the team’s second-leading scorer for its first-round contest against Michigan State.

Yet, Skinn, who has since apologized for his actions, would get the last laugh, as he and his team took down the nation’s best to become the lowest seed to make the Final Four since LSU (who is also in this year’s event) made it as an 11 seed back in 1986. Now, the Patriots are poised to unseat the eighth-seeded 1985 Villanova squad as the lowest seed to ever win a national championship.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to convince you otherwise.

Just to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament George Mason needed to take down Michigan State, a Final Four team from a year ago, and the defending national champions, North Carolina. Then, the Patriots needed to defeat Wichita State for the second time this season and then beat Connecticut in the next round. That’s like telling a blind man that all he has to do to win a NASCAR race is keep his hands on the wheel. But that’s just the kind of resolve that this team has.

Throughout the tournament, the Patriots, with no player taller than 6-8, have out-hustled and out-muscled some pretty big boys. Jai Lewis, George Mason’s 6-7 “center,” has had the unenviable task of guarding the likes of Michigan State’s Paul Davis, UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough and Connecticut’s Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong, all of whom are at least 6-9. But, not only has the senior shut down these top-tier players, he’s thrived on the offensive end, scoring a team-high 20 points in the win over the Huskies.

Despite Lewis’s strong play, what has gotten George Mason this far is its team defense (which ranked No. 9 in the nation in field goal defense), balanced scoring and selfless play (against Connecticut, all five starters scored in double figures and each had at least two assists).

And despite their low seed, the Patriots should have plenty of confidence going into this weekend, because when is the last time that a team nicknamed the Patriots actually lost at the RCA Dome? (Sorry, that was a low blow Colts fans.)

Speaking of football, George Mason happens to be the only school in this year’s Final Four to not win a bowl game this year. In fact, the Patriots have never won a bowl game. They don’t even have a football team.

I’m sure my colleagues will get quite a kick out of that last fact as they mercilessly bash my mid-major gem. Each will say how the Patriots have no shot while singing their respective team’s praises. Olivia is going to gush over Florida’s long-haired, 6-11 forward Joakim Noah, Per is going to bore us about UCLA’s history and Tsao is going to annoy us all about how wonderfully LSU’s Glen “Big Baby” Davis is playing. This fits perfectly with each one’s personality because Olivia at one point was also a tall basketball player with long hair, Per is the only student at Cornell who can remember the Bruins’ heyday in the 1970s, and Tsao is, well, a big baby.

Me, I’ll gladly take all the abuse for rooting for the little guys because I’ve been one my entire life. So, I’m not going to pay attention to all the Patriot naysayers – because on Monday night The Little Team That Could is going to become The Little Team With a National Championship.

Chris Mascaro is a Sun Senior Writer. He May Be Tall will appear every other Friday this semester.

Archived article by Chris Mascaro