Mason Madness: Inside the most unlikely run in NCAA tournament history

Inside the most unlikely run in NCAA Tournament history

Mason Madness

Inside the most unlikely run in NCAA Tournament history: Mason Madness

Published on March 4, 2016
ADVANCE TO: CAA TOURNAMENT  |  SELECTION SUNDAY
 OPENING WEEKEND  |  SWEET 16  |  ELITE EIGHT  |  FINAL FOUR

In March 2006, an unheralded  team from an overlooked university known even to locals as a commuter school took the nation on a magic carpet ride. Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

COACH JIM LARRANAGA: I thought we were going to have the best season in George Mason history. I thought this was the best team I had coached. So I called a very dear friend of mine (sports psychologist Bob Rotella). . . . He drove up to Fairfax, and he met with the team. I believe it was October 30.

We went into a small classroom in our physical education building. He asked the guys to close their eyes, put their head on the desk and dream the biggest dream of what they thought the season could be like. After a few minutes, he asked them to raise their heads and to volunteer their dream. Lamar Butler raised his hand and said, “I dreamt we went to the Final Four.”

MASON MADNESS PART I

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Mason Madness:
Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

Part I: CAA Tournament

Part II: Selection Sunday

Part: III: Opening Weekend

Part IV: Sweet 16

Part V: Elite Eight

Part VI: Final Four

CAA TOURNAMENT

Prelude to madness

The Patriots went 22-6 with a high-profile win at Wichita State in 2005-06 and tied for the regular season title in the Colonial Athletic Association. But they entered the CAA tournament in Richmond on the bubble for an NCAA tournament berth, thanks in part to their low national profile and their league’s lack of pedigree. George Mason was winless in three previous NCAA tournament appearances and played in a conference that hadn’t earned more than one NCAA berth in a year since 1986.

SENIOR GUARD LAMAR BUTLER: We said, “Let’s get two wins under our belt. We’ll be fine.” That’s what Coach L kept saying. That conference tournament, it just wasn’t a good feel.

JUNIOR GUARD TIM BURNS: Around that time we felt we had something special, but we barely beat Georgia State (in the quarterfinals).

SENIOR FORWARD JAI LEWIS: We just had one team that we couldn’t beat, which was Hofstra.

LARRANAGA: And we turned around and lost to them in the semifinals.

ASST. COACH SCOTT CHERRY: I just remember it being a really good game. I think everybody wants to remember the ending, but that was a really high-level basketball game.

LARRANAGA: With (55) seconds to go, (Hofstra guard) Loren Stokes fell on the floor. No one saw what happened. The referees went over, looked at the video. It didn’t show anything, so there was no technical foul or anything like that. But I called Tony Skinn over to the bench. He was guarding Loren. I asked him what happened, and he said he punched Loren.

BURNS: I was actually in the game when that happened because we were down and we needed threes. I just remember seeing the kid down, and I remember Tony having a look on his face. Knowing Tony as well as I did, I knew he had done something he regretted.

HOFSTRA COACH TOM PECORA: Loren Stokes got punched in the groin by Tony Skinn.

“I hit him back. He fell down, and the rest was history. I’m not going to try to downplay it. . . . It was a mistake.”

SENIOR GUARD TONY SKINN

SENIOR GUARD TONY SKINN: It’s just one of those things where if I could make it disappear, I would. People over the last couple years just don’t seem to let it go. It was a competitive game. I had a lot of respect for him. He got me a couple times where it wasn’t that serious. I hit him back. He fell down, and the rest was history. I’m not going to try to downplay it. . . . It was a mistake.

Tony Skinn was suspended for one game by George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga for sucker-punching Hofstra guard Loren Stokes near the end of a loss in the CAA tournament semifinals. Whether that suspension would apply to the NCAA or NIT tournament was up in the air. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

BUTLER: We saw the replay. It’s like, there’s no way he’s not going to get suspended.

LARRANAGA: Even though the referees didn’t see it, there was a cameraman that did get it.

GEORGE MASON ATHLETIC DIRECTOR TOM O’CONNOR: I got a tap on my shoulder from, I believe, a Fox cameraman from Wilmington (N.C.) who said, “Hey, you may want to take a look at this.” That’s when we took a look, and I immediately made a recommendation that we should really suspend Tony.

CHERRY: There was no question about it. Once (Larranaga) told us what happened, what were we going to say? Don’t do anything to him?

LARRANAGA: I looked at it, saw that he had kind of sucker-punched Loren. I didn’t hold Tony totally guilty, because there had been so much elbowing going on. It was a very physical game. But he truly made a mistake in his behavior. I went into the locker room after seeing the video, and I announced to the team I was suspending him for the next game, which either would have been the first round of the NIT or the first round of the NCAA tournament.

ASST. COACH CHRIS CAPUTO: I remember people talking about — “Well, if they’re not going to have a starter, will that affect the selection process? Will they be the team that competed all season long if they’re not going to have one of their best players?” That was a very intense time, probably a time I’ll never forget.

O’CONNOR: It wasn’t until maybe a couple days later that it went through my mind that this could have an effect.

LARRANAGA: There was a firestorm of publicity on ESPN, in The Washington Post. Some of it was a prediction we wouldn’t now make the NCAA tournament. But John Feinstein wrote a beautiful article saying that the basketball gods should reward us for our great performance throughout the year and for our strength in taking disciplinary measures against Tony Skinn, that we shouldn’t be penalized for that. I loved the article. I thought John did a great job. I don’t know if anybody read it or if it was a factor on the committee, but I was very confident we would still get in.

CHERRY: The hardest part about it was that (UNC) Wilmington had the automatic bid, and you had a team in our league (in Hofstra) that beat us twice, and they were squarely on the bubble with us.

RPI on Selection Sunday: The Rating Percentage Index ranks teams by strength of schedule and their performance against that schedule. It is a key measurement used by the NCAA selection committee in determining its tournament field.

30

HOFSTRA

26

GMU

PECORA: At the time, I felt strongly we were going to get in the tournament over them. Our RPI was 32. Theirs was 28. We had beaten them by (11 and 9). How as a coach could I not believe we were a better team than them, having beaten them twice . . . and knowing they were going into the NCAA tournament without their starting point guard? I thought we were definitely getting in.

CAPUTO: There was just so much uncertainty. You don’t know, are we in contention for an at-large bid? Certainly the numbers would say we were. But the history would say nobody was getting an at-large bid out of our league.

SKINN: I just wanted our team and Coach L to have a chance to just be able to be in the tournament, regardless if I was playing or not. Those things come into play when you’re selecting a team. I just knew that would play a role in us getting in or not getting in. I just didn’t want that to be the spoiler of a very good season.

NEXT: The Patriots hold their breath on Selection Sunday.

Mason Madness:
Part I: CAA Tournament

Part II: Selection Sunday

Part: III: Opening Weekend

Part IV: Sweet 16

Part V: Elite Eight

Part VI: Final Four

MASON MADNESS PART ll

George Mason players, from left on couch, Jai Lewis, Folarin Campbell, Gabe Norwood and Makan Konate celebrate at Coach Jim Larranaga%u2019s house after seeing the news on television that they made the 2006 NCAA tournament field. (Ana Pimsler/Potomac News via Associated Press)

Mason Madness:

Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

Part I: CAA Tournament

Part II: Selection Sunday

Part: III: Opening Weekend

Part IV: Sweet 16

Part V: Elite Eight

Part VI: Final Four

SELECTION SUNDAY

Waiting and hoping

Before George Mason shocked the country by advancing to the 2006 Final Four, it had to make the NCAA tournament field. The Patriots waited a week after their semifinal loss to Hofstra in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to learn their postseason fate. As the Patriots prepared for an uncertain future, they worried about the effect of suspending guard Tony Skinn, who had punched a Hofstra opponent in the groin. After losing twice to the Pride in 11 days, it was widely believed the Patriots were competing with their 24-6 league rival for one of the final spots in the NCAA bracket.

HOFSTRA COACH TOM PECORA: There were all kinds of conspiracy theories floating around. I’m still very close friends with Tom O’Connor, the AD of Mason at the time. He was on the (NCAA tournament selection) committee. The chair of the committee, Craig Littlepage, had been an assistant with Jim Larranaga at Virginia.

VIRGINIA ATHLETIC DIRECTOR CRAIG LITTLEPAGE: I know it didn’t have any effect.

GEORGE MASON AD TOM O’CONNOR: If you’re a committee member and your team is being considered, you must leave the room. And I was out of the room quite a bit because there was a lot of discussion. . . . When I went back in the room (on Friday), it was up on the board that we were selected. There was no input from me at all. . . . On my inside I was all smiles, but you have to be a little bit stoic because you’re a member of the NCAA basketball committee; you’re not the director of athletics at George Mason. But it was a great feeling.

Hofstra had the best record (24-6) and second-best RPI ranking (30th, behind No. 21 Missouri State) among teams left out of the tournament field.

PECORA: I was born at night but not last night. They always say, well, we have to leave the room when those decisions are made. But I understand how committees work. There’s other times when guys are having beers together or having dinners. A number of former chairs from the committee that year came up to me at the Final Four and told me they wouldn’t have left the room until we were put in.

O’CONNOR: People can think what they want. I know what happened in the room. . . . Everybody’s going to be in a situation where they can guess what’s going on and they can have their opinion, and that’s okay. But they’re questioning the integrity of the process, and they’re questioning the integrity of everybody in the room; not only myself, but they’re questioning the integrity of 10 people.

FRESHMAN FORWARD SAMMY HERNANDEZ: We met at Coach Larranaga’s house (on Selection Sunday) to see if we were really going to get in.

JUNIOR GUARD GABE NORWOOD: His wife cooked up a great meal like she always does. We were just downstairs in his George Mason room, sitting around on edge, waiting and hoping.

GEORGE MASON COACH JIM LARRANAGA: I knew Tony was feeling like, “If we don’t get into the tournament, it’s my fault.” First of all, it wouldn’t have been. I knew he was feeling that way. I was obviously hoping we were going to get into the tournament. I wanted to be next to him in case we didn’t.

ASST. COACH CHRIS CAPUTO: Air Force got in. That was a little bit of a surprise. We sort of looked at each like, “Ooh, that might not be good for us. That might have been our spot.”

ASST. COACH JAMES JOHNSON: As time went on, nerves started to creep up in my stomach. I could see the team and the guys get a little more restless and moving around.

HERNANDEZ: We really thought the season was over.

LARRANAGA: When Greg Gumbel announced the third bracket, and it was Michigan State against George Mason, Tony fell into my arms and said, “I would have blamed myself if we didn’t get in.” I said, “Well, we’re in now. Now we’ve got to prove to the world we belong.

SENIOR FORWARD JAI LEWIS: Everybody looked at Tony and let him know that we had his back and this is not going to be the last game of the season.

JUNIOR GUARD TIM BURNS: It was just so good to see the relief on his face when we got the bid, when we got in there. I remember definitely goosebumps and a rush; guys were hugging and high-fiving and just going crazy.

LITTLEPAGE: On the basis on them being an 11 seed, you could certainly make the case they were one of the last teams in.

PECORA: I think it was a travesty. I still feel for the kids on the team. They deserved to play in an NCAA tournament game. We went on to the NIT, and we won the only two games in Hofstra’s history in the postseason. But as you know, the NCAA tournament is the end-all. It was a shame.

Conference battle:
The Patriots tied for the CAA regular season title with UNC Wilmington; Hofstra finished third.

15-3

GMU

14-4

HOFSTRA

LITTLEPAGE: For me, the overriding consideration would be somebody that’s a conference champion or co-conference champion in the regular season. I’m a big baseball fan. If you look at the Phillies and the Nationals, let’s just say the Phillies and the Nationals play 10 times, and the Phillies go 7-3. Who goes to the playoffs? The team that won the division. That’s how I looked at things, whether it was George Mason or Hofstra.

CAPUTO: When we did get in, (CBS’s Billy) Packer and (Jim) Nantz literally went through our nonconference schedule and talked about how they’re surprised we would be in. It was sort of hurtful at the time. They made it a good minute or two of the show about how we shouldn’t have gotten in.

Where are they now?:

Tom Pecora left Hofstra for Fordham in 2010 and was fired after five years. He works as an analyst for the American Sports Network. He still has not coached in the NCAA tournament.

Craig Littlepage is in his 15th year as Virginia’s athletic director.

Billy Packer was let go from CBS in 2008 after broadcasting 34 Final Fours and now runs a real estate business in Charlotte.

CBS BROADCASTER BILLY PACKER: I have no idea why it was a big deal. I don’t remember what I said. They ask you a question. You answer the question. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. What people don’t understand is, when you’re broadcasting games and there are 250 D-I schools, the schools I understand are the schools I’ve seen play.

ASST. COACH SCOTT CHERRY: They absolutely destroyed us, and our kids used that to fuel their fire. They took that as a slight against them. It was just perfect motivation.

LARRANAGA: I remember it almost verbatim. I turned the TV off. I sent a message to our players: “Listen, he said that because he’s never seen us play and he doesn’t know how good we are. But I do. You’re the best basketball team in George Mason history, and you’re the best basketball team I ever coached.”

NORWOOD: It went from nervous to just overly excited, especially when we saw the draw: Michigan State, a team we had played the year before, and we played them pretty close.

MAUREEN NASSER, ASST. AD FOR MEDIA RELATIONS: I got a lot of calls from (local) TV stations that were either at Georgetown or GW (who both also made the NCAA tournament that year), and they came out (to Larranaga’s house) later. I hung out at Coach’s house well after everyone had left, with my 18-month-old daughter, waiting for TV stations.

LARRANAGA: The best part about being matched up with Michigan State was we had played them the year before in the BB&T (Classic). Lost the game by six points. My message to the team the first practice was, you guys remember when we played Michigan State last year? And they said yeah. Are we better this year than last year? Oh, yeah, so much better. I said, then we need to believe we can win this game.

NEXT: The Patriots take on powerhouses in the NCAA tournament.

Where are they now?:

Tom Pecora left Hofstra for Fordham in 2010 and was fired after five years. He works as an analyst for the American Sports Network. He still has not coached in the NCAA tournament.

Craig Littlepage is in his 15th year as Virginia’s athletic director.

Billy Packer was let go from CBS in 2008 after broadcasting 34 Final Fours and now runs a real estate business in Charlotte.

Mason Madness:
Part I: CAA Tournament

Part II: Selection Sunday

Part: III: Opening Weekend

Part IV: Sweet 16

Part V: Elite Eight

Part VI: Final Four

MASON MADNESS PART III

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Mason Madness:

Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

Part I: CAA Tournament

Part II: Selection Sunday

Part: III: Opening Weekend

Part IV: Sweet 16

Part V: Elite Eight

Part VI: Final Four

OPENING WEEKEND

Staring down giants

Having snuck into the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed, George Mason prepared to face sixth-seeded Michigan State in Dayton, Ohio, without suspended guard Tony Skinn. The Spartans, an annual powerhouse, had gone to the Final Four the previous season.

ASST. COACH SCOTT CHERRY: (Coach Jim Larranaga) was very relaxed. His first statement was, “We’re just going to have fun, guys. You know what? We’re just going to have fun.” He just kept saying that, and that was real. He was true to his statement.

SENIOR FORWARD JAI LEWIS: When we had practice before we played Michigan State, the first 30 minutes of our practices we were playing Wiffle ball. He just wanted us to relax and not look too deep into the tournament.

SENIOR GUARD LAMAR BUTLER: We had the same team we played them with the previous year in the Verizon Center. We lost — I still remember — 66-60. We weren’t shy about playing them. We knew exactly what they had. They lost players. We were very confident going into that game.

LEWIS: We got together and knew we had to win this game for Tony.

Gabe Norwood, who started against Michigan State in place of the suspended Tony Skinn, dunks home two points. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

BUTLER: Honestly, Gabe Norwood was a starter. He just came off the bench that year.

JUNIOR GUARD GABE NORWOOD: I think I played in every game dating back to my freshman year, but to come in and start? Everybody put a lot of confidence in me, probably more confidence than I had in myself, to be honest.

BUTLER: During the game, I was getting ready to sub in. (Michigan State guard) Maurice Ager sat beside me at the table, and it was a long break — up and down, up and down. We were just talking. He was like, “Man, where y’all boys from?” I’m like, “D.C. area.” He was like, “Y’all boys can play!” It was like, you didn’t realize that last year when we played y’all? He made that comment; it let me know they really respect us.

LEWIS: Once we went into halftime and the score was close, I knew in the second half we was going to pull it out.

JUNIOR GUARD TIM BURNS: We knew the longer you hang in there, the pressure just builds for them.

The Patriots took a three-point lead at halftime, led for most of the second half and defeated Michigan State, 75-65 .

SENIOR GUARD TONY SKINN: I just remember Lamar Butler, him just coming up to me and giving me a big hug. I gave him a hug back like, “Man, I appreciate you guys getting this done.”

ASST. COACH JAMES JOHNSON: Of course there’s a celebration — mid-major school, upset, everyone’s happy. Gabe Norwood went into the locker room while the celebration was going on. I’ll never forget this: He walked to the grease board in the locker room and wrote on the board, “Welcome back Tony.” He could have thought about, “Is Tony going back in the starting lineup? Am I coming out?” That was far from his mind. That brings chills to me every time I talk about that.

George Mason advanced to play third-seeded North Carolina, the defending national champion.

LARRANAGA: We had Scott Cherry on our staff, who had been on the national championship team at Carolina in ’93.

CHERRY: Everybody was asking questions that were kind of weird. They were just trying to be polite, but who am I going to cheer for? Who am I going to root for? I’m rooting for the team I collect my paycheck from.

LARRANAGA: He knew everything there was to know about what Carolina did. So on Saturday between games, we asked Scott to just explain to the guys exactly what they do.

LEWIS: We had played UNC at UNC two years prior to that. That fear was already taken from us. We had played in their arena, with their 18,000 fans. We wasn’t scared at all.

UNC FRESHMAN FORWARD TYLER HANSBROUGH: To be honest with you, once we heard George Mason, we overlooked them. We thought we were going on to the next round.

ASST. COACH CHRIS CAPUTO: We thought Will (Thomas) and Jai were as good as any big players in the country. They just were not that big. They were only 6-6 or 6-7. But they both had very long arms and, I mean, ultra-skillful.

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR TOM O'CONNOR: On the way in, I found a penny that was heads up and a four-leaf clover.

LEWIS: The first four minutes, we were down 16-2. I was a little nervous. I was like, “Oh, no. We’re about to get blown out on national TV. Everybody’s predictions are about to come true, saying we shouldn’t have even been in the tournament.”

RADIO PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER BILL ROHLAND: I thought, “Okay, we got our first-ever NCAA win. Let’s just not get embarrassed.”

LARRANAGA: I called our team together. We stood up in front of the bench. I said, “Look, everybody listen to me. I want all eyes on me. Listen to what I have to say.” And I paused. I said, “We got these guys right where we want ’em.” The players looked at me like, “We do?” I said, “Yeah, look down at their bench.” And they looked down at their bench. I said, “See? They’re celebrating. They think this game is already over. And we haven’t even begun to play.”

JOHNSON: You could hear the guys keep saying it to each other: “We’re fine. We’re going to be okay.” You could see it in their eyes.

CHERRY: When we were down 16-2, Tony took a three at the top of the key and banked it in. We were like, “Oh, maybe the luck is going to change.”

LARRANAGA: The biggest thing going into the game, I had spoken to both of my sons. They warned me about not going to the scramble (press defense) too soon — don’t go to the scramble in the first half. I said, “Why?” They said, “That’ll give (Tar Heels Coach) Roy Williams halftime to make all the adjustments necessary to get them organized.” I thought it was a brilliant suggestion. We were down seven (at halftime). They had a freshman point guard running their team. I told the guys, “Now we’re going after him.”

BUTLER: At the half, we noticed they didn’t have strong ball-handlers. We called for traps just over half court. I think they turned the ball over maybe six times in a row. It was something crazy. Just careless passes, steals, getting tips.

LARRANAGA: In their first four possessions, they had four straight turnovers, and the lead went from 27-20 in their favor to 28-27 our favor. At the first TV timeout, I asked the players to look down the bench. You could see their players arguing with each other.

CAPUTO: Roy Williams is like throwing chairs, stuff like that. We could see they were rattled.

BURNS: Probably the most memorable thing for me was Roy Williams kicking the chair. People were kind of nudging each other, like, “Look, look, look.”

BUTLER: I know (UNC forward) David Noel. He used to come to Mason all the time outside of the season. We played against him my sophomore year. We were up two at the half. I saw him after that game. He was like, “Bro, I told them before the game in the locker room they seemed too loose and confident.” He was like, “I told them. They didn’t believe me.”

Where are they now?:

Tyler Hansbrough, in his seventh NBA season, is a reserve power forward for the Charlotte Hornets.


Tony Skinn started at point guard for Nigeria (where he was born and lived until he was 2) in the 2012 London Olympics, the cap to a seven-year professional career that sent him to France, Italy, Germany, Israel and Ukraine. This year, he joined the coaching staff of former Jim Larranaga assistant Eric Konkol at Louisiana Tech. %u201CTen years to me feels like a couple years,%u201D Skinn said.

HANSBROUGH: I remember just being stunned still after the game. Like, “Man, I can’t believe we just lost to George Mason.”

CHERRY: To beat two storied programs like Michigan State and North Carolina to go to the Sweet 16, we erased all doubts. In the locker room afterward, I showed our guys how excited I was. I screamed pretty loud, for a long period of time. I wanted them to know I wasn’t disappointed for one second that we beat North Carolina.

PATRICK MAZUR, AKA GUNSTON THE MASCOT: We got shuffled out pretty quickly out the back of the arena with the pep band and cheerleaders. . . . And Roy Williams comes by himself, kind of dejected, and he’s kind of trudging along. He stops and he looks over and goes, “You guys with Mason?” And he just stops for a moment and goes, “You know what? Enjoy this. This is going to be a really exciting time. Have fun, and congratulations.”

NEXT: The Patriots go home for the Sweet 16 to find everything’s changed.

Where are they now?:

Tyler Hansbrough, in his seventh NBA season, is a reserve power forward for the Charlotte Hornets.

Tony Skinn started at point guard for Nigeria (where he was born and liveed until he was 2) in the 2012 London Olympics, the cap to a seven-year professional career that sent him to France, Italy, Germany, Israel and Ukraine. This year, he joined the coaching staff of former Jim Larranaga assistant Eric Konkol at Louisiana Tech. “Ten years to me feels like a couple years,” Skinn said.

Mason Madness:
Part I: CAA Tournament

Part II: Selection Sunday

Part: III: Opening Weekend

Part IV: Sweet 16

Part V: Elite Eight

Part VI: Final Four

MASON MADNESS PART IV

George Mason fans -- one, on the left, holds a Sports Illustrated magazine featuring guard Lamar Butler on the cover -- cheer for the team as its leaves campus for a game during the NCAA tournament. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Mason Madness:

Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

Part I: CAA TOURNAMENT

Part II: SELECTION SUNDAY

Part: III: NCAA OPENER

Part IV: SWEET 16

Part V: ELITE EIGHT

Part VI: FINAL FOUR

SWEET 16

Coming home, going national

George Mason had earned the first two NCAA tournament wins in the program’s history on March 17 and March 19, 2006. Not only that, the Patriots had earned a trip to the East Region semifinal at Verizon Center, about 20 miles from a campus that was reaching a fever pitch.

JUNIOR GUARD GABE NORWOOD: Just on cloud nine from the time we touched down at the airport to the drive back. It was just one of those things you’ll never forget: the people and the sounds, just the whole feel of the campus. It was like life was just shot into the campus.

SENIOR FORWARD JAI LEWIS: That was a crazy week. It took me at least 30 to 40 minutes to get to class when it normally took me maybe five minutes, and that’s including stopping into the caf to get me something to eat. It was a big change.

JUNIOR GUARD TIM BURNS: People were losing their minds on campus.

GEORGE MASON PRESIDENT ALAN MERTEN: Everybody wanted a piece of us. They wanted (Coach) Jim Larranaga, they wanted me. Jim and I tried to have lunch together at the student center and there were so many people that wanted to talk to us we didn’t get to eat. We were selling T-shirts out of the box; they never got on the shelves.

MAUREEN NASSER, ASST. ATHLETIC DIRECTOR FOR MEDIA RELATIONS: Sports Illustrated had Lamar (Butler) on the cover, and someone called me to get a fax number, because they wanted to send the cover over. I took the cover over to Coach, because he was practicing at the time.

“I just heard him say, “Oh, my God! This is unbelievable!” I pay it no mind. I’m still shooting. There was a huddle of people around him. He’s like, “Lamar, you got to come see this!”

SENIOR GUARD LAMAR BUTLER

SENIOR GUARD LAMAR BUTLER: Like you normally do after practice, one of the assistant coaches or the managers will come rebound for you. I was on the opposite end with (assistant) coach James Johnson. We were shooting. Coach L was very animated. I just heard him say, “Oh, my God! This is unbelievable!” I pay it no mind. I’m still shooting. There was a huddle of people around him. He’s like, “Lamar, you got to come see this!”

I stop shooting, and I walk down to the other end, and I see it. I’m just like, “Oh, wow. That’s great.” I put it down on the chair and I went back to shooting. It didn’t really hit me until a couple days later. It was like, “I’m really about to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.” That’s something you can show your kids and grandkids. I actually have a big, wall-sized photo of the copy. My dad has one.

LARRANAGA: When I saw it, I was blown away. I bought every copy at the 7-Eleven that I could get my hands on.

NASSER: CBS called and said, “We want to follow your team the rest of the time, as far as you guys go.” So I asked Coach, and he was like, “Absolutely.” He didn’t really set too many parameters. He wanted to capture what these guys were going through and how much fun they were having.

MERTEN: We had a group that got together every morning in March. It was called the Leverage Group. We were asking ourselves the question, how can we get attention from this for our academic programs and for the university? We had everybody working on it, every step of the way.

JOHNSON: Tickets was a big, big deal for our guys during that game. Our guys did an unbelievable job of staying focused. The five starters were all from that area. Just listening to the guys along the way when we’re in restaurants and on the bus, hearing guys talk about how their phones were ringing off the hook about tickets, people they haven’t heard from in years seeing them on “SportsCenter” and the newspaper and seeing if they could get to the games. That was funny.

George Mason prepared for a rematch with seventh-seeded Wichita State, which they had beaten on Tony Skinn’s last-minute three-pointer in Wichita in February.

ASST. COACH CHRIS CAPUTO: When we beat them there, I remember I said after the game, “We just beat a Sweet 16-type team.”

WICHITA STATE COACH MARK TURGEON: I knew that night that they were one of the top teams in college basketball. I actually remember telling my assistant Tad Boyle after the game, “Man, if we played them 10 times, I think they’d beat us nine.” And so then we get them in the Sweet 16, and I said, “Well, maybe this is the one time we can beat ’em.” I thought they were that good.

ASST. COACH SCOTT CHERRY: Our guys just knew we were going to win that game. I mean, there wasn’t any doubt whatsoever. We’re playing in D.C., which is 20 minutes from our campus. We knew we would have a home crowd. We knew we had beaten them on their home floor. We knew we could beat them. As soon as you walked in the gym, you could sense it.

NORWOOD: That was probably the only game throughout the tournament that I felt like from the very beginning, it was ours. I don’t know what it was — if it was the look in their eyes or the look in our eyes — but I just felt 100 percent confidence going into that game.

BUTLER We saw them at shoot-around. We were walking past them in the hallway. We saw some of their players, didn’t make eye contact. We saw Coach Turgeon, shook his hand. The players, it seemed like they were nervous. That was our talk before the game. It’s like, let’s throw this first punch at them. We beat them by three at their place, but now they’re on our turf. Let’s take advantage of it. It was sharks in bloody water. We sensed it. We came out that first three minutes, and I don’t think we missed a shot.

Where are they now?: Maureen Nasser is associate AD for media relations in George Mason's athletic department.


Mark Turgeon left Wichita State the year after his Shockers lost to George Mason, becoming the head coach at Texas A&M. In 2011, Turgeon replaced Gary Williams as Maryland%u2019s coach. His Terrapins made the NCAA tournament field in 2015, and have been in the top 25 every week this season.

TURGEON: They were really good. They were on all cylinders. Jim’s a really good defensive coach, and they had talent, and their defense was great and the building was kind of was caving in on us.

The Patriots led the entire way in the 63-55 victory, and advanced to play top-seeded Connecticut.

CAPUTO: For those of us that have lived in Washington, to say that it’s a George Mason town, people would laugh. For that weekend, it really was a George Mason town.

TURGEON: I knew it was going to be a road game, but I didn’t think it was going to be 16,000 George Mason fans in there. And I just remember how loud and wild (it was), and how loose George Mason’s team was and excited to be there. We really didn’t have any chance.

LEWIS: Our guards showed up and destroyed them. They couldn’t figure out which way to guard us.

CBS ANALYST BILL RAFTERY: I think at that point, whether you were a believer or a non-believer, particularly with these kids, they wanted to play anybody. That’s what it looked like. When there’s no fear in a team or trepidation, that’s when things like that happen. At that point, after who they beat, everybody knew U-Conn. better come ready to play.

NEXT: An earthquake at Verizon Center.

Mason Madness:

Part I: CAA TOURNAMENT

Part II: SELECTION SUNDAY

Part: III: NCAA OPENER

Part IV: SWEET 16

Part V: ELITE EIGHT

Part VI: FINAL FOUR

MASON MADNESS PART V

George Mason tips off against No. 1 seed Connecticut, the second-ranked team in the nation entering the tournament, in an electric atmosphere at Verizon Center. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Mason Madness:

Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

Part I: CAA TOURNAMENT

Part II: SELECTION SUNDAY

Part: III: NCAA OPENER

Part IV: SWEET 16

Part V: ELITE EIGHT

Part VI: FINAL FOUR

ELITE EIGHT

The Connecticut Assassins Association

After blowing past Wichita State at Verizon Center, George Mason faced its toughest obstacle yet: No. 1 seed Connecticut, winner of two national titles and bursting with future NBA talent. The Huskies entered the tournament ranked No. 2 in the nation by the Associated Press and reached the Elite Eight with a 30-3 record after outlasting all-American Brandon Roy and Washington in overtime.

ASST. COACH CHRIS CAPUTO: There was a sense we could do it. There was also a sense, hey, no one’s ever done this in modern college basketball. You hear about Penn in the 1970s or Indiana State with Larry Bird. I remember thinking about Kent State had went to the Elite Eight. That was our frame of reference. This thing may end here — there’s a thought, at least in the coaches’ minds. But I think the players had a belief.

Pennsylvania: The Quakers of the Ivy League were NCAA tournament regulars before their deepest run in 1979, when they reached the Final Four of the 40-team tournament as a No. 9 seed.


Indiana State: The Sycamores had never played in the NCAA tournament before Bird led the Missouri Valley Conference members to a 33-0 record and a spot in the 1979 national title game. Like Penn, their run was ended by Magic Johnson and Michigan State.


Kent State: The Golden Flashes of the Mid-American Conference reached the 2002 South Region final as a No. 10 seed before losing to eventual national runner-up Indiana.


Five players from the 2005-06 Huskies--starters Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone and Marcus Williams, plus sixth man Jeff Adrien --went on to play at least four seasons in the NBA. The other starter, Denham Brown, was selected in the second round of the 2006 NBA draft but did not play in a regular season game.

COACH JIM LARRANAGA: Connecticut was the No. 1 seed, and they had five NBA players in their starting lineup. But I wanted to play them. I did not want to play Washington. The University of Connecticut was very similar to Michigan State and Carolina. They were very big. Big teams will very often play behind in the post. We had two of the best offensive post players in America in Jai Lewis and Will Thomas. So I knew we were going to be able to throw the ball into them.

SENIOR FORWARD JAI LEWIS: I actually wasn’t intimidated. Rudy Gay is from the Baltimore area. We played against each other coming up. Josh Boone, I actually played against him in AAU. I already know what I can and can’t do against these guys. I felt as though they couldn’t stop me.

LARRANAGA: Will Thomas had played against Rudy Gay in high school and never lost to him. He made the statement to his teammates: I never lost to him in high school. I’m not planning to lose to him in college.

CONNECTICUT COACH JIM CALHOUN: I’d be less than candid to say I feared George Mason a lot more than my players did. That’s only normal.

LARRANAGA: Connecticut did not know anything about George Mason. When they were interviewed on Saturday, they were asked what league we play in. They said the Patriot League. Of course, we’re the George Mason Patriots. The guy who said it was corrected by his teammate, who said, “No, they’re not in the Patriot League. They’re in the Missouri Valley.”

SENIOR GUARD LAMAR BUTLER: I remember they asked (U-Conn. swingman) Rashad Anderson on ESPN. Me and Folarin (Campbell) were watching it, and we started texting each other. “Can you name any of their players?” And this is after we beat Wichita at Verizon Center, so we should be on your scouting report. He said, “No, I can’t name any of their players.” That was it. That was all I needed. It gave us enough bulletin board material.

JUNIOR GUARD GABE NORWOOD: I’ll never forget it, Coach L implemented this rule that we’re not allowed to wear headphones around campus or even leading into the gym. When we saw U-Conn. walking out, everybody had headphones on. I’m sure they all got along and liked each other, but it gave a totally different impression.

BUTLER: That game was a respect game. If you don’t know us, you’re going to know us by the end of this game.

LEWIS: I think their trash-talking helped us more than the pregame speech from Coach L.

LARRANAGA: I went down at, I don’t know, 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I’m on the stationary bike and it had a TV. There was the interview. So I thought to myself, these guys really don’t know anything about us. I needed to deliver that message to the team that we’re really an unknown quantity and these guys don’t know how good we are, and we’re going to surprise them. I sat down and wrote “C-A-A.” What message can I deliver? The C, it was just natural — Connecticut. Now I need an A and an A. You know what? How about Connecticut Assassins Association. The guys will laugh hysterically at that.

LEWIS: When he said that, everybody laughed at first, because Coach L is not really known for telling jokes. That was a good one for him.

JUNIOR GUARD TIM BURNS: It was definitely corny and guys laughed at it, but at the same time, you know that’s how he is and you respect the hell out of his game plan. It works for him. I’m not sure other coaches could pull that off, but it worked.

LARRANAGA: I said, “Now we’re going to go out there and shoot these guys down.” And they just were ready to storm out of the locker room.

CAPUTO: The one thing I’ll say, we did have the crowd. It was as electric an environment as I’ve ever been in.

RADIO PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER BILL ROHLAND: To me the most amazing moment of that U-Conn game was during a timeout, the band starts playing “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and the whole arena starts singing.

CBS ANALYST BILL RAFTERY: I think every fan sort of wishes all the games were in an atmosphere like that. (The tournament’s) gotten so big, it’s more of a stage now, but that environment just lends to chaos, excitement, unrealistic plays. I don’t know, there’s something about urging your own team on that makes teams do great things.

BUTLER: There were times we couldn’t even hear Coach L in the huddle.

George Mason entered halftime trailing, 43-34, but started on a 12-4 run after the break, setting up a closely contested second half.

CALHOUN: You’re down by six and feeling great. The other guy is up six and scared to hell he can’t hold on against this team nobody’s heard of.

BUTLER: They were arguing during the game. Cursing at each other. Mainly Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams. “Pass me the ball!” I’m just like, you’re arguing in the Elite Eight? . . .

People ask me all the time, “How did y’all beat them?” I tell them we outscored them, but two, we beat them off the court. We were like a family. Stuff I didn’t realize how simple it was. When we were going to the grocery store, everybody didn’t have vehicles. So one person called and said, “I’m going to the store, you need a ride?” I didn’t realize that wasn’t the norm among some teams. We were a team on and off the court. You saw one, you us all.

Coach Jim Larranaga finished cutting down the net after the stunning upset of Connecticut. He rallied his team before overtime, telling them: “Are you having any fun yet? Go out and show the world what we’re made of.” (Preston Keres/The Washington Post)

LARRANAGA: I realized these guys don’t need rest. They need to stay out there, because they’re playing so well together. I didn’t want to take a chance in disrupting the chemistry we had going. The game was so close, any mistake could have been critical.

LEWIS: He called a timeout five minutes into the second half, and he let us know that he wasn’t making any more subs for the game. So my first thought was, “Oh, my goodness. I got to play 15 minutes strong without no timeouts, no subs, nothing.”

LARRANAGA: We ran the same play 25 consecutive times. We didn’t change one thing on offense. We didn’t make one adjustment at all.

BUTLER: It’s so simple. It’s called “Three.” I don’t think we ran another play the entire game. We had a rub screen at the top, and the guard would dribble to the right. Reverse it off the rub screen. I would sprint off the screen. If they didn’t help, I had the shot. If they helped, I caught it, threw inside to either Jai or Will and let them go to work. U-Conn. didn’t figure it out.

LEWIS: It depends on which way they went. Will’s a lefty, I’m a righty. So Will controlled the left block, I controlled the right block.

ASST. COACH SCOTT CHERRY: They left those guys down there one-on-one against Will and Jai. And those two guys had a field day.

Twin Towers:
Lewis finished the game with 20 points to lead the Patriots, along with seven rebounds. Thomas, who like Lewis was listed at 6 feet 7, scored 19 points with a game-high 12 rebounds.


Lewis and Thomas’s counterparts on the Huskies, 6-11 Hilton Armstrong and 6-10 Josh Boone, finished with a total of 14 points and nine rebounds.

NORWOOD: I felt like I had the best seat in the house. I was sitting there courtside, just enjoying the show.

CALHOUN: We were really good at guarding the post all year. That night, their guys outplayed our big guys. We got beat on our strength.

George Mason nearly pulled away, but Williams drilled a late jumper in the lane to cut Connecticut’s deficit to two. When Tony Skinn missed a free throw on the other end, Denham Brown forced overtime with a last-second layup.

LARRANAGA: The four guys were back, but they were afraid to foul. So when Denham Brown pushed the ball, he drove it right to the basket. We actually got out of his way.

CAPUTO: I felt like the walk back from where I was standing on the court to the chair was like the longest walk of my life. I felt like we got this close to doing this, and now we got to go to overtime. For half a second, I was personally deflated.

LEWIS: I think when we went into overtime, the whole country counted us out then.

FRESHMAN FORWARD SAMMY HERNANDEZ: I thought we were going to lose. I tell you the truth. I never thought we were going to pull it off.

ASST. COACH JAMES JOHNSON: When I tell this story, I get chills to this day. We usually meet as a coaching staff, and then we talk about what we want to do, or what the other team is doing. Then we go over, and Coach L delivers the message to the guys in the huddle. Well, we didn’t meet. Coach L went right to the bench.

LARRANAGA: I said to them, “Guys, you need to look me right in the eye right now and listen to what I have to say. We didn’t play defense for five seconds. Now we got to play great defense for five minutes. But you know what? There isn’t any place that I’d rather be than right here with you guys, trying to beat Connecticut with a chance to go the Final Four. Where else would you rather be?” Then I asked them, “Are you having any fun yet? Go out and show the world what we’re made of.”

BUTLER: We looked at each other like, let’s go win it.

CALHOUN: I was happy for the overtime. It was one of those situations where you’re trying to extend the game and find some rhythm. We never did. They never allowed us to.

CAPUTO: We kicked their butt in overtime.

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Patriots seized an 86-81 lead with 26 seconds left, but again U-Conn. forced George Mason to make free throws to ice the game — this time, Lewis went to the line with 6.1 seconds left and the Patriots leading, 86-84.

LARRANAGA: When Jai was on the foul line getting ready to shoot the free throws, I was standing up, and my arms were folded. There was some stress and tension in my face. He turned to me and said, “Hey, relax. I got this.” And then he missed.

JOHNSON: Jai is a very good free throw shooter, and more importantly a clutch player. When he missed the free throw, I couldn’t believe he missed. At that point with Denham Brown going down, I’m thinking, “Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.” Just, “Oh, my God.”

LARRANAGA: He pulled up and shot a contested three.

“We’re kneeled down, I’m locked arms with cheerleaders, I’m in a big green suit, and we have a dead-on view.”

—Patrick Mazur, George Mason mascot

PATRICK MAZUR, AKA GUNSTON THE MASCOT: We were watching from the baseline. It’s one of the few slow-motion moments of my life. We’re kneeled down, I’m locked arms with cheerleaders, I’m in a big green suit, and we have a dead-on view. We immediately know the shot’s over (the rim). It’s that pure moment of joy when it hits the rim and the buzzer goes off and we go, “Holy crap, this just happened.”

BUTLER: I see the shot leave his hand. When they say it’s in slow motion, it really is in slow motion. I see it, and I’m like, “It’s going long.” I see the rebound. It’s coming to me. I was going to hold it, and somebody has to foul me. Luckily when I got the rebound, time went off the clock.

GEORGE MASON PRESIDENT ALAN MERTEN: When Lamar Butler grabbed the rebound, I saw him hold the ball so tightly I thought he was going to break it.

NBC4 REPORTER LINDSAY CZARNIAK: I’m getting chills when I’m telling you this. When they won, (Butler and his father) were hugging near the free throw line, and his dad was just saying to him, “Final Four, Final Four,” and they had tears streaming down their faces.

“Maybe — okay, probably — this is the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.”

Read Michael Wilbon's column: "If You Believe in Yourself . . ."

NORWOOD: Seeing my parents, seeing my siblings jumping for joy, seeing grown men cry. To bring that type of emotion out of people was awesome.

Where are they now?:


Bill Raftery
 joined Fox Sports before the 2013-2014 college basketball season, where he covers Big East basketball and frequently returns to Verizon Center. He said George Mason’s win over U-Conn. remains “one of the special moments” of his career.



Jim Calhoun, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, retired after 26 years as Connecticut’s coach in 2012 and now broadcasts games for ESPN.


Lindsay Czarniak left NBC Washington for ESPN in the summer of 2011. George Mason’s run was among her first big stories in Washington. “I don’t know if there’s a story I will ever cover that will top that,” she said.

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR TOM O'CONNOR: People remember where they were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, people know where they were when Kennedy was shot. I’ll bet you an enormous amount of people, and especially people at George Mason, know exactly where they were when George Mason beat Connecticut.

CHERRY: On the bus on the drive back to Fairfax, we just kept looking at each other and looking around and being like, “We’re in the Final Four.” We just couldn’t believe we just beat the No. 1 seed. You just kept looking around, like, “Man, seriously, is this real?”

ROHLAND: We had been told that yeah, the students will probably meet us at the arena, and we’ll walk through and the guys will hold up the trophy. They weren’t expecting what they got. It ended up being about 6,000 students and fans. And it was just chaos.

BUTLER: I had an exam that next day. I had to go back to my room. I was like, “I love y’all, but I got a test tomorrow. I don’t know what you want me to do, but I gotta go.” I tried to study. I had to cut my phone off, actually. I really couldn’t focus. The Final Four is really here. It’s really happening.

NEXT: America’s team for a weekend.

Where are they now?:

Bill Raftery joined Fox Sports before the 2013-2014 college basketball season, where he covers Big East basketball and frequently returns to Verizon Center. He said George Mason’s win over U-Conn. remains “one of the special moments” of his career.

Jim Calhoun, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, retired after 26 years as Connecticut’s coach in 2012 and now broadcasts games for ESPN.

Lindsay Czarniak left NBC Washington for ESPN in the summer of 2011. George Mason’s run was among her first big stories in Washington. “I don’t know if there’s a story I will ever cover that will top that,” she said.

Mason Madness:

Part I: CAA TOURNAMENT

Part II: SELECTION SUNDAY

Part: III: NCAA OPENER

Part IV: SWEET 16

Part V: ELITE EIGHT

Part VI: FINAL FOUR

MASON MADNESS PART VI

Lamar Butler said of the loss to Florida: “It was a tough pill to swallow. It still is, actually. I just never got over it.” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Mason Madness:

Ten years have passed since George Mason stormed into the Final Four, one of the most stunning achievements and joyous moments in college basketball history. Late this winter, coaches, players, opponents and others along for the journey shared their memories of those three weeks.

Part I: CAA TOURNAMENT

Part II: SELECTION SUNDAY

Part: III: NCAA OPENER

Part IV: SWEET 16

Part V: ELITE EIGHT

Part VI: FINAL FOUR

FINAL FOUR

‘We were America's darlings’

George Mason, which had never won an NCAA tournament game before 2006, had now crashed the Final Four, along with three college basketball bluebloods: UCLA, LSU, and its next opponent, Florida. Before traveling to Indianapolis, the Patriots still had a few days of madness in Fairfax.

SCHOOL PRESIDENT ALAN MERTEN: It completely took over the whole university. It was George Mason the man’s best day, best month. People who didn’t know him found out who he’d been.

Tony Skinn gets behind Florida’s Chris Richard for a layup. Patriots assistant James Johnson said the Gators “were bigger, longer, more athletic at every position.” ((Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post))

JUNIOR GUARD TIM BURNS: My father almost fell out of his chair. He’s at home watching the 6 o’clock “SportsCenter,” and it’s me saying Coach L’s “Thought of the Day.” If that’s not surreal, I don’t know what is. All these things are happening. Going into class, getting standing ovations from the teachers and the students. I don’t think much studying was done that week on campus, and I’m not even saying by us.

MASCOT PATRICK MAZUR: They would call and say, “Do you have class or could you do ‘Good Morning America’?” And I would say, “Oh no, I don’t have class, absolutely.” You skip a few classes.

LARRANAGA: Our bookstore on campus does normally $11,000 worth of business each week. During the Final Four run, they did $875,000 worth of business in 10 days. They sold 33,000 T-shirts at $20 a pop.

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR TOM O'CONNOR: We were America’s darlings. Everybody was rooting for us.

FRESHMAN FORWARD SAMMY HERNANDEZ: When you get out of the plane (in Indianapolis), and you see that red carpet and everybody in the media waiting, that whole scene is like: “Wow, I’m in the Final Four.”

Where are they now?:


Sammy Hernandez transferred to Florida Atlantic after his sophomore season and settled in his native Miami where he does, in his words, “a little bit of everything.” He runs his own youth basketball organization, coaches kids and and works at basketball camps for the Miami-Dade recreation department. He regularly attends Miami games in support of Jim Larranaga.


Patrick Mazur spent three years as George Mason’s mascot, Gunston, culminating in the Final Four. He now lives in Philadelphia and works in sales for IBM. The Final Four run remains among his most memorable experiences: “I don’t go a week without it coming up in some way in my life,” he said.


Five members of the 2005-06 team played in the NBA, including four-time all-star Al Horford and two-time all-star Joakim Noah.


Tom O’Connor retired from George Mason in 2015 after spending 20 years at the school, becoming the Washington area’s longest-tenured Division I athletic director. He soon began consulting for other programs, and agreed in December to serve as the interim athletic director at Manhattan College through this spring.


Tim Burns and his brother launched for-profit and nonprofit organizations offering basketball training in Manhattan, working with players from grade school through the pros. Their groups have formed a partnership with the District of Attorney of Manhattan, and have done NBA pre-draft training for the past four years.


Gabe Norwood began playing professionally in the Philippines after leaving Mason, becoming a six-time all-star and joining the Filipino national team for a handful of international competitions. He now spends 10 months of the year in the Philippines and plays for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. The Final Four run, he said, is “brought up probably at least once a week, even out here in Manila.” Norwood traveled to the Super Bowl this year to support his brother, Broncos wide receiver Jordan Norwood.


Scott Cherry left George Mason a year after the Final Four run, becoming an assistant coach at Western Kentucky and then South Carolina before being named High Point’s head coach in 2009. Cherry remains at the North Carolina school, having led the Panthers to their first Division I postseason appearance, their first Big South Conference regular season title, and their first NIT berth. They were the No. 1 seed in this season’s Big South tournament, which started Friday.


Jim Larranaga turned down overtures from power-conference schools, including alma mater Providence, for several years after George Mason’s Final Four run until he left for Miami following the 2011-12 season. Larranaga has resurrected a dormant program, winning 29 games in his second season and reaching No. 7 in the country this year. “John Feinstein told [wife] Liz and I at breakfast one morning that our life would never be the same” after the Final Four, Larranaga said. “I responded and said, ‘We’re not going to change at all.’ He said, ‘You don’t have to. Your circumstances will change dramatically.’ "


Alan Merten retired as George Mason’s president in 2012 after 16 years, having transformed the school into Virginia’s largest public university. He now serves on corporate boards and spends most of his time in Florida, although he maintains a residence in Arlington.


James Johnson moved to Virginia Tech as an assistant in 2007, became the head coach of the Hokies for two seasons and rejoined Jim Larranaga in Miami for this season as Miami’s director of basketball operations.


Chris Caputo is in his fifth season as an assistant coach at Miami, his 14th year serving under Larranaga.


Jai Lewis had a brief dalliance with the NFL, signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent and prospective offensive tackle. He played basketball overseas for eight years, mostly in Japan, France and Philippines. For the past two years, he has worked as a behavior interventionist at Halstead Academy in Baltimore. “I like dealing with kids,” Lewis said. “You never know what they’re going to say. They always make you laugh and smile.”


Lamar Butler played professionally for five seasons, making stops in the Czech Republic, Turkey and the NBA D-League. He now serves at as an assistant coach for St. John’s College High School in the District. “I talked to Tim [Burns] maybe two weeks ago,” Butler said. “I talk to Tony [Skinn] it seems like every week. I talk to Folarin [Campbell] and [John Vaughn]. We’re Madden enemies. We get on the PlayStation, talk on the chat. I texted Jai [Lewis] maybe two weeks ago. Of course, Coach L. I saw him this past weekend. We all still communicate.”

ASST. COACH CHRIS CAPUTO: The first night we get in there, we take the team to St. Elmo’s, a great steakhouse in Indianapolis. We get this room in the basement, and (Billy) Packer and (Jim) Nantz are upstairs eating. It might have been Tom O’Connor or Coach who asked them to come down and talk to the team. It was funny. Jim Nantz couldn’t have been nicer and hat-in-hand, sort of apologetic. And Packer, he wasn’t going to apologize. He was cracking some jokes. The funny thing, the guys didn’t want any part of it. They were looking at their plates. It was personal to them.

LARRANAGA: CBS was there, and they were filming our dinner. My wife was sitting next to me. She’s very frugal. All the players were ordering lobster tails. She said to me, “Would it be too much to order a lobster tail?” And I said, “No, you’re on full scholarship this weekend.” She said, “Thank goodness. I’ve been a walk-on for 35 years.”

MAZUR: You’re going up against a UCLA Bruin, a Florida Alligator and an LSU Tiger. Everyone knows that. And then all of a sudden here comes a green thing, and no one knows what it is. People would say, “What are you?” And my mascot reaction was always to shrug my shoulders and hold my hands up in the air.

JUNIOR GUARD GABE NORWOOD: To come out and see more people at our practice than we had all season at any of our regular season games was one of those moments where it’s like, “Man, this is really history.”

SENIOR GUARD LAMAR BUTLER: Before the game, we even talked about it as a team: Whoever wins our game is going to win the national championship. We watched UCLA. We watched LSU. No disrespect, we just didn’t think they were better than what we had played.

ASST. COACH JAMES JOHNSON:  (Florida) had a lot of pros. They were very similar to us, but they were bigger, longer, more athletic at every position. They had two guys that score inside with (Joakim) Noah and (Al) Horford.

CAPUTO: As we watched (film), we almost felt they were a better version of us in some ways. Just bigger.

JOHNSON: As we’re going out to the court, the walk seemed like it was five minutes. Coach L looks up, and he’s like, “Oh, boy. What time is kickoff?”

O'CONNOR: When the game started and they came out for warmups, playing the fight song and everything, it gives you goosebumps to even think about it. I’m getting goosebumps right now.

BUTLER: We didn’t have a rhythm at all, either side. It just felt weird. That was the first game I would say I just didn’t feel comfortable we were going to win.

LARRANAGA: We were only down five at the half. We had been down seven to North Carolina and nine to Connecticut. So it wasn’t the halftime deficit. It was how good they were inside. We were trying to make some adjustments. But the adjustment was probably the worst thing we did. We helped off of their three-point shooter, (Lee) Humphrey. He was a lights-out three-point shooter, but he hadn’t hurt us really in the first half. So we decided to help off of him a little bit more, and it was disaster. He made three straight threes to start the second half. The lead went from five to (12). We were never able to get it back under control.

ASST. COACH SCOTT CHERRY: Jai (Lewis) and Will (Thomas) just couldn’t do what they did against U-Conn. to Corey Brewer and Al Horford and Joakim Noah. It was hard for our guys to score against two NBA all-stars. It was a different athleticism, a different length.

BUTLER: That game, I actually blacked it out until last year. I watched the film for the first time last year around this time. I called Coach L right after. He said, “Yeah, we should have made some adjustments.” We talked about it. I just wanted to know what happened. It was a tough pill to swallow. It still is, actually. I just never got over it.

LARRANAGA: He was exactly right. What we should have done is set more ball screens and take their bigger guys away from the basket. Instead of like we had in the previous games just pounded it inside, we needed to take their big guys away from the basket. Not challenge them, but make their guards play. And I didn’t do that.

The Gators led throughout the second half and pulled away for a 73-58 win that put them in the national championship game and ended George Mason’s season.

BURNS: We felt if we would have won that game, we would have won the national championship.

NORWOOD: The seniors were basically breaking down. Lamar’s a pretty emotional guy, and you kind of expected that from Lamar. But to see Tony (Skinn) and Jai also in the same boat, who are a little more reserved, seeing that hurt.

CHERRY: They were devastated. They really thought they had a chance to win a national championship.

JOHNSON: The guys were on the bench, heads in their hands. We had guys crying. A lot people said, “You guys made it, you’re a mid-major, you went to the Final Four.” Our guys felt like, that wasn’t enough. We wanted to win. I just remember the hurt.

LARRANAGA: After the Florida game, we were walking out of the locker room together, and I put my arm around Lamar, and I said, “You know, I’m mad at you.” And he looked at me, “You’re mad at me?” I said, “Yeah, remember back in October when (sports psychologist) Dr. Rotella was here? You said you dreamed we went to the Final Four?” He said, “Yeah!” I said, “You should have dreamed we won the national championship.”

MERTEN: The run to the Final Four was one of the highlights of my life. And it still is.

The Gators would defeat UCLA, 73-57, two days later for the title. With all five starters returning the following season, they became the only team since Duke in 1992 to repeat as national champions.

SENIOR FORWARD JAI LEWIS: That year, we were really close. We were a tight-knit family. We always went places together. It might not have necessarily been all 15 guys, but at least five of us were going somewhere wherever we were going. We always had fun. We always cracked jokes. We never made nobody feel bad. I think that’s a bond we’re going to have forever.

BUTLER: We all still communicate. It was a family, and there was nothing fake about it. We really cared about each other. Until this day, we still do.

JOHNSON: On picture day, I always think in the back of my mind, “Could this be the team?” It could be any team. When we were going through all the stuff, team pictures were on everything, and we were autographing. That’s why when I look back at the team picture, I’m like, man, when we were taking these team pictures in the middle of the Patriot Center, whose mind did it cross that we’d be signing these photos for the Final Four?

LEWIS: When March Madness comes around and it’s time to do the brackets, the first thing I look at is, who are the 11 seeds? Any 11 seed, I root for them just to the point where they could possibly erase our history.

Three other mid-major programs have since advanced to the Final Four: Butler of the Horizon League in 2010 and 2011, reaching the national championship game both times; Virginia Commonwealth, another CAA team, in 2011; and Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference in 2013.

CONNECTICUT COACH JIM CALHOUN: The George Mason story — Jimmy and his players and kids up front who were craftier than us that night, who were better than us that night, the fans jumping all over the place — it really typifies the lore of the NCAA tournament.

WICHITA STATE COACH MARK TURGEON: I think George Mason opened the doors to people really believing they could get there as a mid-major. It changed a lot of things in our game.

CAPUTO: I do think we helped change the world a little bit. Who was it, Roger Bannister who broke the four-minute mile? And then all of a sudden, a bunch of other people broke the four-minute mile right after that. There really never will be another George Mason, I don’t think.

LEWIS: Nike had a little event for us, where they gave everybody Air Force 1s with the Final Four patch on the side, which I still have today. I have them in my closet. Still in the box. Around tournament time, I pull them out and look at them, contemplate if I want to wear them or not. But I probably won’t.

BUTLER: It’s crazy — Tim sent me a picture two weeks ago of his shoes. Mine are still in the box. I had all my teammates sign it. I’m not ever going to get rid of those, sell ’em. They’ll never touch my feet.

Where are they now?:
Sammy Hernandez transferred to Florida Atlantic after his sophomore season and settled in his native Miami where he does, in his words, %u201Ca little bit of everything.%u201D He runs his own youth basketball organization, coaches kids and and works at basketball camps for the Miami-Dade recreation department. He regularly attends Miami games in support of Jim Larranaga.

Patrick Mazur spent three years as George Mason%u2019s mascot, Gunston, culminating in the Final Four. He now lives in Philadelphia and works in sales for IBM. The Final Four run remains among his most memorable experiences: %u201CI don%u2019t go a week without it coming up in some way in my life,%u201D he said.

Five members of the 2005-06 team played in the NBA, including four-time all-star Al Horford and two-time all-star Joakim Noah.

Tom O%u2019Connor retired from George Mason in 2015 after spending 20 years at the school, becoming the Washington area%u2019s longest-tenured Division I athletic director. He soon began consulting for other programs, and agreed in December to serve as the interim athletic director at Manhattan College through this spring.

Tim Burns and his brother launched for-profit and nonprofit organizations offering basketball training in Manhattan, working with players from grade school through the pros. Their groups have formed a partnership with the District of Attorney of Manhattan, and have done NBA pre-draft training for the past four years.

Gabe Norwood began playing professionally in the Philippines after leaving Mason, becoming a six-time all-star and joining the Filipino national team for a handful of international competitions. He now spends 10 months of the year in the Philippines and plays for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. The Final Four run, he said, is %u201Cbrought up probably at least once a week, even out here in Manila.%u201D Norwood traveled to the Super Bowl this year to support his brother, Broncos wide receiver Jordan Norwood.

Scott Cherry left George Mason a year after the Final Four run, becoming an assistant coach at Western Kentucky and then South Carolina before being named High Point%u2019s head coach in 2009. Cherry remains at the North Carolina school, having led the Panthers to their first Division I postseason appearance, their first Big South Conference regular season title, and their first NIT berth. They were the No. 1 seed in this season%u2019s Big South tournament, which started Friday.

Jim Larranaga turned down overtures from power-conference schools, including alma mater Providence, for several years after George Mason%u2019s Final Four run until he left for Miami following the 2010-11 season. Larranaga has resurrected a dormant program, winning 29 games in his second season and reaching No. 7 in the country this year. %u201CJohn Feinstein told [wife] Liz and I at breakfast one morning that our life would never be the same%u201D after the Final Four, Larranaga said. %u201CI responded and said, %u2018We%u2019re not going to change at all.%u2019 He said, %u2018You don%u2019t have to. Your circumstances will change dramatically.%u2019 "

Alan Merten retired as George Mason%u2019s president in 2012 after 16 years, having transformed the school into Virginia%u2019s largest public university. He now serves on corporate boards and spends most of his time in Florida, although he maintains a residence in Arlington.

James Johnson moved to Virginia Tech as an assistant in 2007, became the head coach of the Hokies for two seasons and rejoined Jim Larranaga in Miami for this season as Miami%u2019s director of basketball operations.

Chris Caputo is in his fifth season as an assistant coach at Miami, his 14th year serving under Larranaga.

Jai Lewis had a brief dalliance with the NFL, signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent and prospective offensive tackle. He played basketball overseas for eight years, mostly in Japan, France and Philippines. For the past two years, he has worked as a behavior interventionist at Halstead Academy in Baltimore. %u201CI like dealing with kids,%u201D Lewis said. %u201CYou never know what they%u2019re going to say. They always make you laugh and smile.%u201D

Lamar Butler played professionally for five seasons, making stops in the Czech Republic, Turkey and the NBA D-League. He now serves at as an assistant coach for St. John%u2019s College High School in the District. %u201CI talked to Tim [Burns] maybe two weeks ago,%u201D Butler said. %u201CI talk to Tony [Skinn] it seems like every week. I talk to Folarin [Campbell] and [John Vaughn]. We%u2019re Madden enemies. We get on the PlayStation, talk on the chat. I texted Jai [Lewis] maybe two weeks ago. Of course, Coach L. I saw him this past weekend. We all still communicate.%u201D

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