Five years ago, I went into a makeshift Connecticut locker room at Verizon Center and asked a whole bunch of Huskies what conference George Mason played in.
It was probably a cheap gimmick, since Connecticut had only just beaten Washington and hadn’t had any team to study its next opponent. Still, it was obvious that this team knew nothing about George Mason, from its nickname to its coach to its conference affiliation.
“Missouri Valley, is it?” guessed forward Ed Nelson.
“They’re in the Patriot League, aren’t they?” ventured forward Josh Boone.
This actually turned into some weird storyline, when Jim Larranaga took this slight against his conference and turned it into a rallying cry, telling the Patriots that their league had been disrespected, and that they were now part of the “Connecticut Assassin Association.” I'm sure my mom was very proud.
Anyhow, I figured five years later, I should repeat the gimmick.
Connecticut’s locker room is housed in the same hallway of Verizon Center, and again, they have the roster with the NBA talent. But this team is a third seed instead of the tournament’s overwhelming favorite. They’re probably no better than than third biggest attraction at this site, after top-seeded Pitt and defending national runner-up Butler. And the players seemed to have a somewhat different attitude when I asked about Bucknell.
“Patriot League,” Donnell Beverly said. “We know. We did a little background check. You’ve always got to be prepared coming into this tournament. You know, that’s a good league. It’s not really a cakewalk league. And Bucknell, they’re a good team. We’re just gonna prepare and go off what we know and try to get this win.”
“Patriot League,” Shabazz Napier said. “I know they’re a great team because they’re in the NCAA tournament....I know that coach told me they played Marquette and ‘Nova and they played really well. I don’t put nothing past them. They’re a great team. We just have to go out there and play with the attitude that if we lose, we’re out, and try to get to Saturday.”
“I don’t,” said Kemba Walker, when I asked if he knew the name of Bucknell’s league, before he quickly corrected himself. “Matter of fact, Patriot League, right? I know they’ve got a couple good players, a big guy, the defensive player of the year. They’ve got a solid point guard. They’re a great basketball team.”
“The Patriot Conference, I think,” Roscoe Smith said, which is close enough.
I mean, you’ll have to take my word on this, but the Huskies were much more engaged with the concept of Bucknell as a legitimate opponent than their predecessors had been with Mason.
“I caught them on TV but I had no idea we were gonna be playing them,” Jamal Coombs-McDaniel told me. ”They’ve got a 6-11 guy and he shoots threes; he’s got to be pretty good. They’ve got a shooter who’s shooting 50 percent from three. They’ve got the defensive player of the year in the Patriot League. I did that on my own before we got here. They look pretty good.”
Indeed, of the seven players I asked, five named the Patriot League. A sixth is from Nigeria and gets a pass. If I had to guess why the difference, I’d say because that 2006 team had heard nothing but praise for much of the season. This Connecticut team feels somewhat differently toward the world.
“We’ve got to stay focused, just stay together, stay mentally tough,” Kemba Walker told a few reporters. “People are gonna say things about us that we don’t like, but it happens. We watch ESPN all the time. Guys are saying they won’t be surprised if Bucknell beats us, we’re gonna lose early, and stuff like that, but we can’t let stuff like that get to our heads. I’m not throwing no names out. I’m not throwing no names out, but it happens. It’s what’s been happening to us all year. I’m not surprised at all, but I really don’t care obviously. Me and my teammates are just gonna go out and give the effort that we’ve been giving all year.”
And yeah, they know about that George Mason game, too.
“I was hoping George Mason would win that game,” Coombs-McDaniel said. “Because they were the underdog. If I knew I was gonna come to U-Conn., of course I would have been rooting for U-Conn. But that’s just a great example, all that talent on that U-Conn. team, losing to a lesser talented team. So that’s why we’ve got to bring it from the tip-off.”