D.C. Area Populates Polls

Coach Jim Larranaga and George Mason are 25th in the coaches' poll, the first ranking in team history.
Coach Jim Larranaga and George Mason are 25th in the coaches' poll, the first ranking in team history. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

With 19 days remaining until the NCAA men's basketball tournament field is unveiled, college basketball powers are jockeying for position, making their final cases for a spot or a better seed in the bracket. In recent years in the Washington area, late February has meant crucial games for Georgetown and Maryland in the powerful Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences, respectively.

But this season the biggest excitement comes in smaller packages: George Washington, ranked among the top 25 all season, was joined in the coaches' poll yesterday by George Mason, the first national ranking in the program's history.

No other metropolitan area features three nationally ranked schools, all likely NCAA tournament bound, and a fourth, Maryland, which still has a chance to earn an at-large spot in the 65-team field that will be revealed March 12.

The once-beaten Colonials are No. 6 in both the Associated Press top 25 and the coaches' poll, while George Mason, fresh off an impressive victory Saturday at Wichita State, entered the coaches' poll at No. 25 and was two points shy of making the Associated Press rankings. Georgetown, which has lost three straight games, fell to 23rd in both polls. Maryland did not receive a vote in either poll.

"From a larger perspective, it does not mean much," said Kyle Whelliston, an ESPN.com analyst specifically dedicated to the so-called "mid-major" programs, those schools who do not compete in the power conferences that annually send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. "But in the world of capital area hoops, this is Presidents' Day and this is mid-major day in Washington, with the so-called mid-majors ranked over some traditional powers."

The polls do not affect the selection process for the NCAA tournament, but they are a source of pride for programs and conferences, particularly George Mason's Colonial Athletic Association, which has not had a team ranked since Navy was 18th on Jan. 20, 1987.

"It's better for George Mason than anybody," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, "because it's few and far between the opportunity to capture a poll position. It's a wonderful boost for their program, some neat recognition. The same for GW, but GW has knocked on that door before -- they were there last year -- so it is not as big of a novelty item" this season.

In addition to the polls, the latest NCAA tournament projections, released yesterday, reveal increasing respect for both George Washington and George Mason. In ESPN's Joe Lunardi's projection, the fourth-seeded Colonials and seventh-seeded Patriots received higher seeds than eighth-seeded Georgetown and Maryland, which was excluded from the field.

"Each school has its group of fans and it should be an exciting time," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "I hope people aren't blase around here, and you do get that a little bit because it's the nation's capital and you have the Redskins. Show me another area of the country that has this right now. There isn't one. What other metropolitan area has great college basketball? We're blessed here in the area to have so many good teams, yet I don't think people fully appreciate that."

Whelliston said no school benefited more than George Mason from this weekend's made-for-television Bracket Buster event, which pairs strong mid-major programs. The Patriots won their eighth straight game Saturday by beating Wichita State, 70-67, at Charles Koch Arena, arguably the toughest place to play in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Upon the Patriots' return to Fairfax on Sunday, university President Alan G. Merten and his wife were waiting at Patriot Center to congratulate the team -- "even though we were 2 1/2 hours late getting back to Washington!" Coach Jim Larranaga said. "That's very special."

The victory significantly strengthened George Mason's chances of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament should it fail to capture the conference's automatic bid by winning the CAA tournament. In beating the first-place school in the MVC, Whelliston said, George Mason "avenged" its worst loss of the year, November's 20-point loss to Creighton, which also is expected to make the NCAA tournament out of the MVC.

George Mason ranks 19th -- third highest of any other mid-major school and higher than any area team -- in a projection of the Ratings Percentage Index, a mathematical formula used to help determine NCAA tournament seeds and berths.

No team with an RPI better than Oklahoma's 33 in 1994 has ever been excluded from the tournament. What's more, the Patriots are 21-5 and only one team -- Butler in 2002 -- has ever had more than 24 wins and been left out.

"If they don't win in Richmond" during the CAA tournament, Whelliston said, "it will most likely be who wins in Richmond and them" that would make the NCAA tournament.

The CAA has received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament only once: in 1986, when it sent Richmond and a David Robinson-led Navy team to the NCAA tournament. But perhaps George Mason's ranking already is paying dividends because two bracket projections yesterday had three CAA teams receiving invitations.

"The best part about being ranked is that you get covered better" by the media, Bilas said. "Your scores will be on 'SportsCenter.' You'll get a paragraph in every newspaper in the country. If you're No. 26, you're in the back of the newspaper for people who look at those regional scores."

Staff writer Steven Goff contributed to this report.

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